May 30, 2010

Community is a beautiful word

This week has been an interesting one.  James is gone for a total of ten days (three more to go) under somewhat exceptional circumstances.  It was stressful for me as we were preparing for him to go and certainly also in the first few days.  But something beautiful has happened amidst the strain... Community.

I have been reflecting back to over a year ago when it was the first time James had to travel for an extended period of time, leaving me alone with the boys.  On this very blog, I counted down the days.  That time was extremely stressful and extremely lonely for me.  We had only been in China for a month and a half and we only knew one other family (our MCC co-volunteers).  They helped me a great deal and as much as they were able.   But it is hard to fill the gap of being alone in the dark house after the boys go to bed at 8:00 for days on end.  Additionally, back then I was extremely reluctant to admit that I was having a hard time.  I figured that it was better to deal with it alone, than to have people feel sorry for me, thereby making me feel even worse.  I know without a doubt that God helped me through that time and I grew because of it, but there was a definite emptiness that can only be filled by community (not just a few people).

So much has changed in the time since then.  Even though these are the most stressful circumstances that James has been gone under, I feel surrounded by people who care about me.  Part of it is because we know a lot more people, but another part is that I have chosen to open up about my struggle.  Pretending to be strong sucks.  Surprisingly, I have found that opening up about my struggle has released mounds of pressure and has, in itself, strengthened me.  I have let go of the struggle and joy has come in its place.  My Chinese friends have helped me and supported me.  My expat friends have been spending a lot of time around our house, playing with the boys or having a meal with us.  I have a friend, Sarah, who is living with me and we have spent late nights just chatting with each other (or watching Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman!).  My family has written to encourage me.  My MCC co-volunteer has listened to me break down at the office.  It has been a humbling experience for me to receive all these different forms of help, but I feel that they are absolutely God sent.

God is certainly the one who maintains me in this time.  I'm learning that instead of just trying to draw strength from him, I can tell him about exactly what is bothering me, and strength comes from that.  If he continues to be with me right now, then I do not have to worry about tomorrow.  Tomorrow will eventually become now.  Another good thing is that James was able to call me four days ago, when he normally does not have access to phones.  He is also is discovering the benefits of community, having randomly found a group of Canadians to spend his evenings with.  

Even though I do not savor this situation, I feel very blessed and I feel very provided for.  On Saturday night I had a girl party.  We made cinnamon buns and painted our toenails and spent the whole evening laughing.  I haven't had so much fun in years!  I think I sounded like I was 14 again from all of my laughing, but I couldn't believe how light I felt afterwards.  Crying can help relieve pressure, but laughing can too.  Its the proverbial "good medicine".  

It has also been wonderful having Sarah here with me.  Just having her here keeps me accountable for the way that I treat the boys.  I sometimes find that when James is gone, I have a much shorter temper than usual with the boys, since I take out my frustrations on them.  If there is no one to hear me yell at them, then it is almost as if it didn't happen ...but then I feel guilty.  With her here, I have to be more patient and creative than usual.  Not only am I getting along with them better, I also don't have the crushingly guilty feeling of being a bad parent.

Three more days.

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good... His love endures forever.

May 18, 2010

Friends: Paving the Way for Foreigners

I never really claimed to love the TV show Friends before we came to China, but I have to admit that the show has found a special place in my heart since being here.  A special place of irritation!

Friends practically has a cult here in China.  Every single episode has been translated into Chinese subtitles.  As such, anyone who wants to, can dive into American pop culture and assume that it is a reliable source of information for North American morals and traditions.  Christmas, Thanksgiving etc.  I can't even count the number of times that I have been in the middle of explaining something of my culture to someone when they interrupt me and say "Hey its like Friends!".  Then they go on to describe some ridiculous thing that Joey did once upon a time or a horrible song that Pheobe sang, and it usually ends with a direct quote (or song).  It makes me feel like I am back in high school and all the boys in my class are quoting scene after scene of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (usually competing to see who has the silliest accent).  If I mention that my sister is named Rachel, there is an instant spark and I hear "Rachel Green!".

From Friends has come a plethora of information about a wide variety of topics.  Jewish religious practices, North America office relationships, food, dating practices and much much more etc.

Of course we all know that it is also very popular in North America.  If you mention a particular episode of Friends to any random North American person, chances are they have seen it.  Everyone (including me) knows that Ross' first wife was a lesbian, his second marriage lasted a few days and he and Rachel got married when they were drunk.  

The irritation of course comes when people assume that Friends is an accurate representation of all North Americans.  Because Friends jokes casually and opening about having a threesome, I have had people assume that I talk about threesomes like I would talk about the weather.  People have also assumed that I would probably have a special appreciation for extremely crude jokes (and justify having heard that joke on Friends).  While North Americans do tell jokes like this, there still are rules about who, what, and where those types of jokes are told.  For example, it makes me a little uncomfortable when the male teacher that I have been assigned tells those jokes during a one-on-one class.  Telling a sexual joke to a married woman when you are alone with her in a small room would be a faux pas in our culture (and certainly also in Chinese culture), but that part is not shown on Friends.

Friends also promotes this attitude that stupidity is funny (which pretty much sums up Pheobe and Joey's characters). 

Anyway, the Friends cult has grown to such an extent that a cafe, built to exactly resemble the one on the show, has recently been opened here in Beijing.  I've seen people get so excited about it that they jump up and down with little shrieks. Apparently it is packed at all times.  

I'm not annoyed at any one person or thing in particle.  I'm not trying to lambast the show itself.  I don't care the the TV show exists.  Like most shows, I can choose not to watch it if I don't like it.  I also don't care that Chinese people like it.  I'm quite ready to admit that it can be very funny at times.  What I don't like is that I am instantly associated with it and that there are many assumptions made about me based upon it.  

So there's my little rant, up where everyone can see it.

Here is a little humor for you before I sign off.  The other day I was in a touchy mood and found myself continuously pouring instructions upon Ari's head (not unlike the woman in the book of Proverbs that is referred to as a continual drip!).  He became less and less responsive to me as the day went by.  Later on when I went to apologize to him, his response was,  "Yeah Mommy, you know, if you didn't tell me so many things, my ears wouldn't want to stop listening to you."  I had to chuckle at that.

May 14, 2010

Emergency Room

First picture: Medical glove "balloon" with stitches on its forehead
Second picture: The corner of a hard wooden table
Third picture: Jude

Put 'em together and what have you got?  Bibbity bobbity boo...

Today I got a phone call at the office that I have been mentally preparing for for a very long time.  Aiyi speaking such fast Chinese that all I caught was "Ari push Jude...head broken...come home!"  Of course I rushed home.  Sure enough there was Aiyi desperately cradling Jude with blood in his hair, and Ari crying in the corner saying "I'm sorry! I'm sorry!"  She moved the cloth away and let me see a gaping gash perfectly in the middle of Jude's forehead about two inches long and down to the deepest layer of muscle just over the bone.  

James and I coordinated an effort to meet at the hospital.  I wanted Aiyi to stay home with Ari, but she wouldn't let go of Jude and insisted on coming.  Our MCC coworkers also met us there.  I thought I handled myself fairly well considering the circumstances.  My heart didn't leap out of my chest and I was able to watch with some amount of interest as the doctor wove his threat in and out of the gash.  Jude had to held down by four people, even after undergoing local anesthetic.  I felt very bad for him, covered in sweat and not understanding why so many people were holding him down.  I think he was more angry at being restrained than in pain because of the stitches.  The doctor had to give him two deep tissue stitches and then six on the surface.

After we came home the biggest job was to calm Aiyi down.  She was convinced that I hated her and that I would never forgive her for what happened.  She was almost crying, her heart was beating a mile a minute and she was pouring self blame on her head.  I was praying that I could understand her fast and jumbled words in order to have an appropriate response.  I assured her again and again that we didn't blame her (especially since the accident occurred while the boys were doing something that they have been warned against a thousand times) and that we feel she has done a good job of caring for them.  As much as we obviously don't want things like this to happen, it will provide a good proof for the boys that we are not just trying to scare them when we say they could get hurt.  We have comforted Ari and told him that we also don't blame him, while also impressing upon him the importance of thinking before doing something.

Jude seems to be doing alright.  We need to watch him closely this evening but there doesn't seem to be any problems.  Minor accidents make me thankful that they are minor.  He could have hit himself in many other vital places.    

What a day!  What a day!

May 11, 2010

Little Spring Pleasures

The weather is finally turning warm here in Beijing.  For most of March and April the temperatures were hanging between 0-10C.  But suddenly one day, the temperatures spiked to 30C, and since then they have been hovering in the mid 20's.  Just fabulous!  We are not roasting yet (that should happen within the next two weeks), but are enjoying wonderful days.  No matter how tired I am I want to be outside. 
This has partly to do with my changing perspectives on our neighborhood as well.  Until now I have been veiwing it as extremely urban, where every time you step out of the house you see strangers, and where the street outside our complex is the size of Winnipeg's biggest highways (with far more traffic).  Well something changed.  When I step out of the house now I often meet people I know or recognize.  There is something very homey about having someone greet you.  It also helps that I can now recognize people.  It is embarrassing to admit that for a long time all Chinese people looked the same to me.  However, on that same note I have been comforted to know that they feel the same way about us foreigners.
Additionally, even though the roads are big and packed with people and cars, they are starting to feel small and neighborly compared to the truly large highways.  The other day as I rode the bus home, I was able to imagine that I was in a cute little neighborhood with shops and friendly people milling about.  As I imagined this, it suddenly didn't seem so strange and that little daydream has actually had a lasting change on my perspective.  Suddenly it was easy for me to imagine that if I had grown up here, I would be nostalgic for it.  That perspective has served to make me feel more attached to it myself. 
Since posting that blog about taxi drivers, James and I have been contemplating a question that has been inspired by them.  Why is it that everyone in China seems so interesting?  Everyone has a story to tell or an opinion about something and it is always fascinating!  Perhaps it is because we come from a fundamentally different culture?  Yes and no, because regardless of culture, my predominant feeling when talking to them is just how human and relatable they seem to me.  Does it mean that people in China have more interesting lives than people in Canada?  That depends on what you define as interesting.
What we finally came up with is this.  People in China actually talk about themselves.  It is not uncommon for an old grandmother to approach me as I watch the boys play outside and tell me all about herself, her children, her grandchildren, her life's hardships and her opinions.  Then she will ask me all kinds of questions about myself.  This is not something that happens in North America.  We are very caught up with this idea of "You don't bother me and I won't bother you".  Personal is personal.  I'll keep my personal things to myself.  Strangers generally have an unspoken understanding that both parties probably don't care too much about the other's personal life.  Until coming here, this seemed very normal and even polite to me.  To some degree it is polite, but it is also just very convenient.  If we don't know about other people's lives we don't have to care about them.  But it is so isolating!
It is amazing how the sharing of personal stories with someone that you have no longterm relationship with can still create a sense of community. Even if I never see that old grandmother again, she and I still shared a momentary bond with each other.  She was interested to know about me and I was interested to know about her.  However short it was, it was a meaningful encounter that changed my day and I will remember her story for a long time.

Granted, we are something of an exception so that makes people here more curious about us. Many of them are just curious to hear a foreigner speak Chinese.  In the first few sentences they are bound to watch with amusement and then inevitably make some comment about how well you speak.  (On a side-note, this can be very irritating.  If you didn't do well, they will tell you so.)  I don't think they approach discussions with other Chinese people they don't know with the same leisurely attitude and degree of curiosity.  But I have overheard strangers striking up very open conversations on numerous occasions. 

Anyway, all of that is to say that I want to actively change my attitude toward people from one of indifference to one of interest. I don't expect that people on the streets of Winnipeg will start confiding in me, but I do think that people can tell when you are actually interested in them, even if you only have a 30 second interaction with them.

In other news, James and I celebrated our sixth anniversary this past Sunday, May 9.  It was fairly low key.  I played piano for church in the morning, we went out for lunch and in the evening we watched Honey I Blew up the Kid with the boys (very romantic movie).  However we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly.  While it is nice to have a special day to celebrate, it is also nice to know that we have had many good years together, instead of just having one good day together.  We are also often able to do a lot of things together even if the boys are around.  When we take the boys out to play, we'll often play Chinese hacky sack together or play badminton.  Those types of small interactions make daily living much more meaningful.

We thought that the boys would like the movie (a very lighthearted movie about a giant 100ft baby), but Ari in particular seemed to think it was very creepy.  He watched the screen with great concern and horror at a giant baby innocently destroying Las Vegas.  He seemed especially disturbed that it happened whenever the baby interacted with electricity.  He was quick to point out that he would never be that big and scary.  

We have also struck up a bargain with a friend of ours.  She needs to practice her English for an exam that is coming up, and in return for our help she will teach Ari to play the accordion.  We invested some personal funds into buying him a small accordion this weekend and he is very excited about it.  It was rather cheap and we felt that we got a good deal on it.  If he likes it and does well, we'll need to get him a bigger one eventually, but this one will be just fine for a trial run.  He'll be Oom-Pah-Pah-ing sooner than you can say lederhosen! (maybe we'll have to get him a pair of those!).  See the the picture at the top to envision Ari's newest destiny!

May 03, 2010


Foods we miss:
  • Rhubarb. This is definitely in the number 1 position as I miss every kind of dessert ever made with rhubarb.  Rhubarb bars, rhubarb platz, rhubarb cake, rhubarb pie, rhubarb pineapple jam...I love rhubarb!
  • Blueberries (for pancakes)
  • Farmer sausage. We occasionally try a Chinese or Korean variety. They are alright with eggs and onions, but that's about it.
  • Fresh peas
  • Sweet corn
  • Pickerel
  • Lentils
  • Chocolate milk

Foods for which we have a growing appreciation:
  • Various greens that we don't know the English names for
  • Pig feet
  • Chicken feet
  • Tofu: various kinds, soft, hard, aged, fried, sliced, flavored
  • Several (often unidentifiable) varieties of fish.  Last night we had Swordfish steaks at a friend's house
  • Bamboo shoots
  • Lotus root
  • Duck eggs
  • Lamb kabobs and most Western Chinese cuisine 
  • Various hot pots.  We find that some hot pots we love and others we really dislike.  And be warned, if you are going to eat hot pot, don't wear a white shirt!  Everything gets covered in red oil.  
  • Milk tea and various other teas (like roasted buckwheat, flower tea, green teas)
  • Street cart food.  My favorite is a fried piece of dough with eggs, leeks and pork inside.  These are always guaranteed to be very tasty and very unhealthy.  
  • Fresh Soybeans boiled in their pods with anise and Sichuan peppers - very tasty!
  • Many different snacks made with sesame or peanuts

Foods which play an irreplaceable role in our diet
  • Rice
  • Noodles
  • Mounds of fresh fruit and vegetables.  New varieties include dragon fruit, pomello, durian, a wide variety of melons.  All the fruit and vegetables from the market are amazingly sweet, fresh and crunchy.
  • Jiaozi (Chinese dumplings)
  • Baozi (Chinese meat buns)
  • Dried mung beans, soybeans and cornmeal
  • Chicken breast.  Ironically, this is not a preferable cut of meat in China.  The chicken breast is thought to be dry and not very flavorful.  Oh well, it works for us!
  • Ground pork.  Much cheaper than beef, but works for the same recipes.
  • Eggs and milk
  • Mushrooms, especially shitake.  Very cheap compared to Canada
  • Egg fried rice
  • Peanut butter and bread

Foods we have tried and are not fond of
  • Much of Aiyi's Anhui cuisine, which usually consists of whole animals that have a strong salt and smoke flavor (fish, ducks etc.)
  • Dishes that sit under an inch of red chili oil - they may be good at the time, but the day after may not be very fun!

Foods that we must buy from the Western store
  • Coffee (non instant and not sweetened!)
  • Enriched flour and whole wheat flour
  • Margarine
I mostly wrote out these lists because I've been thinking about how much I miss rhubarb lately.  What I really wanted to do was blog about rhubarb, but I figured that would be boring, so I though I might give a little insight into our changing diet.  We buy much less preserved food than we ever did.  I can't remember the last time I bought something that was in a can or anything frozen.  With so much fresh produce, there is very little need for those things.  

A few months ago James was at a conference where he was served crocodile and duck tongues.  When I told the boys what Papa was eating for supper, Ari said, "Do you mean that now there are a bunch of ducks that can't say 'quack' anymore?"