All Things Bright and Beautiful

If you haven’t realized it yet, I have named each of the recent posts about the children after hymns. They are all songs that bring me joy, just as my children do. They are God’s gift to me. Blessing from Heaven.

Our youngest child, Mei Mei, is known to most as Carleigh. When she was younger I called her our little spark plug. A firecracker. She was energetic, passionate, curious, stubborn, and fearless. She was as I have said before, taught by her older brother, so there is no other way she could be.

When we lived in China, she would get on the giant school bus, which was actually a touring bus, like she was in charge. Talking the minute her four-year old body climbed the steep steps, and not stopping until they arrived at their destination. She was a social butterfly. When she was home, she was stuck to me like glue. My tiny Asian sidekick, endlessly filling me in on what was going through her mind. She was never one to play with toys much, never cared for dolls, and only used her play kitchen and pots to store the chalkboard paint she peeled off her wall, or wet pull-ups she wore at night. If she hid those pull-ups and put on a dry one, she would be closer to the reward she would receive after a pre-determined number of dry days. Bringing up another of her traits. Sneaky and mischievous.

The sneaky part reminds me very much of myself as a child. If she wanted it, she would find a way to get it. I can’t tell you how many fruit snack wrappers I would find hidden in her room. We would buy them, and she would binge. This was troublesome mostly because a box of fruit snacks cost about $10 in Shanghai. Needless to say, we stopped buying them. On the mischievous side, one day, before we moved to China, she was supposed to be napping in her room. She was very quiet, so I assumed she was. Unfortunately, when I opened her door, she had taken a black magic marker and “outlined” every single thing she could in her room. Dresser drawer handles, parts of the door, toys, a carousel rocking horse and all of its details. One of many, many shocking but lovingly humorous memories of her younger years.

Carleigh loves everything fluffy and soft. Fluffy pillows and blankets, soft sweatshirts and fleeces. Blankets are the biggest obsession though. It’s hard for her to pass one up. The fluffier and softer, the better. Each one getting pushed down the line a little when a new one arrives, but all getting used and loved. Pillow pets and stuffed animals were her favorite toys, along with the blankets, when she was little.

She is still all, or most, of those things and more. She is passionate in both anger and joy, but sometimes she holds things in and let’s them simmer until they boil over. This tends to come out on Bill and I, Brennan, or on herself. I rarely get a snuggle, but she likes to lay with me while watching TV sometimes. Today, was one of those days. Cherished time with my baby girl. She loves watching anime with her biggest brother, Ethan. She is solidly a tweener, so she also enjoys hanging out by herself in her room reading or listening to music. She is trying to figure out who she is as a person, and doesn’t feel especially comfortable in her own skin right now. She is getting there though. Discovering who she is. Who she wants to be.

I hope she always knows that no matter what she does or who she chooses to be, she will always be my baby girl. Forever in my heart, all things bright and beautiful.

The World Beyond Our Borders

Once you have lived in a foreign country, experienced the world outside our comfortable borders, you will never be the same. I spent countless hours looking out a car window, walking the streets, and experiencing life in Asia. It never grew tiring.

Below is a post from April 7, 2009, written on my original Super Five Shanghai blog.

Grateful…..Part 2

Today, as we drove down the local street to the children’s school, I thought about the differences of the world and how lucky we are to experience different cultures. In the States, if I were to pass by a house which had a pool table in front of it, I would be a little bothered. I would feel a lack of order, that a piece belonged indoors, but was outdoors, like when I see living room furniture on someone’s porch. This morning, however, I thought it quite charming that a local Chinese gentleman was enjoying a game of pool outside on a beautiful day. In all likelihood, I am sure that pool table would not fit in his tiny house, but he wanted to play so outdoors is where it stood.

In China, card and board games, singing, dancing, sleeping, and exating, is often done outdoors. The people of Shanghai love to be out in nature, and I admire the time that they spend enjoying the beauty of the day. There are parks everywhere, and they are full of people. They are flying kites, doing tai chi,  playing badminton, walking with babies. Activities that cost nothing but reap great rewards for the body and spirit. Although I know that many people in the U.S. enjoy parks as well, I have noticed that the activities that take place at parks in China are much more diverse. Most Americans would not feel comfortable singing or dancing in the park, and most could never compete with the Chinese on kite-flying abilities.

In China there are rules, but they are not always followed. The main roads are well manicured, swept, and washed, but it is not uncommon to see a trash heap gathering next to a small local road like the one near the school. The rich and the poor areas of town are intermingled all over the city, the grandiose and the dilapidated are steps away from one another. The people are much more vocal, and many do not have a sense of personal space. The traffic is chaotic.

In March, while we were in Japan, we experienced some time with the Japanese culture. Although we were not there very long, we noticed that they are much more rule-oriented than China, and they make sure that the rules are followed. The locals are more subdued and quiet,  and are always polite. Sales associates and restaurant staff want to please, and are stressed if they cannot. In stores, when something is bought it is wrapped like a present.  There is an obvious attention to detail,  everything is immaculately clean and organized. The cities are more consistent in appearance. The traffic is orderly.

Last summer we visited Hong Kong. While it looks similar in some ways to mainland China,  it is a fairly westernized version. Most people speak at least some English, and there are more American and European stores. The taxis were clean and friendly,  much like in Japan.  The traffic was again, more orderly than in mainland China. Shopping experiences and stores were set up and run the same as in Shanghai. Courtesy and manners were similar.

I enjoy living outside of my culture,  at least for a while. I’m glad that my children have this opportunity. Reading  books and learning about other places in the world is a wonderful thing, but living in it is something entirely different.  It is absolutely amazing.

You Are Mine

It’s time to talk about my oldest son, Ethan. He will be 19 years old in less than a week. Where does the time go?!

Ethan was a fairly quiet and content baby. He would sit and play without getting into trouble for hours. As a toddler, he loved trains, books, and his blanket buddy, Lamby. He would play with his Thomas the Tank Engine trains, watch train shows, read books, or read books TO his Thomas trains. He was an early talker, and we could tell from a young age that he was very bright.

He has always been a very observant child. He soaks everything in, even when you think he’s not paying attention. As a child, teenager, and now an adult. He is aware of his eccentricities. Even as a young child he knew he was smart, and would test us. One of his favorite things to do would be to ask us a question. After we answered, he would respond with “well, actually……,” He will tell you himself, that he is socially awkward. He met his best friend in kindergarten, and they have been buddies ever since. That, along with his family, is enough for him.

He went to daycare for the first three years of his life, as I was still in the working world. He played with other kids, but was not extremely social. He had one boy in particular that he loved to play with. He preferred not to be in the spotlight. If there was circle time and he was called on to say something or do something at some point, he would disappear into his shell.

In grade school, we realized that he really was advanced, especially in math and science. He had more difficulty with creative writing activities, art and gym. You see, Ethan always saw things in black and white. Either it was right, or not. He was a perfectionist. He worried that his teacher wouldn’t be interested in what he wrote, drew, painted, etc. I could never convince him that it didn’t matter. It was about understanding the concept or lesson, not whether they found it interesting. In gym, he didn’t want attention directed at him, and like me, he was not athletically inclined.

In second grade, Ethan’s teacher expressed concern about his refusal to write in his journal. She suggested that we take him for counseling, to see if there was a reason behind it. My husband had said for some time that we should have him tested. He had some quirky behaviors, and Bill was worried that he was autistic. I always said that if he was, he was high functioning, and I didn’t want him labeled, but now it seemed like it was time to have him checked. He met with a therapist several times, and she felt he was fine, so we moved on, and continued to try to ease his fears of what others thought. He went to another before we moved abroad, and again, they said he was doing fine. No diagnosis.

From third grade on, Ethan had trouble getting homework done. Not because he didn’t understand it, but because he didn’t want to do it. It was a never-ending battle. He needed to be constantly reminded. He did wonderfully on tests, but if he had a homework assignment he didn’t agree with, or feel comfortable with, he wouldn’t do it. It was so hard to deal with, knowing the level of intelligence he possessed.

When we lived in Shanghai, a counselor noticed some of his quirky behaviors, knew of his homework difficulties, and asked to have him tested. The school psychologist conducted the testing, and again, it was determined that he was not autistic. Again, we moved on in life, and soon, back to the U.S. He finished high school, at the top IB school in the nation, and finished with a good GPA, considering all of his earlier difficulties.

In his junior year of high school, he started seeing a therapist again. We were hoping to help him deal with approaching adulthood. When he opened up to me, he was very aware of his issues, and exactly when they started to effect his schooling…way back in third grade. He wanted help too. After a year of counseling, his therapist told him she thought he had ADHD. Specifically ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder.) We had never thought this was possible, as he certainly could concentrate on something when he wanted to. And no one else had suggested this. His therapist told him that it was not an average case, and therefore, harder to identify. Shortly afterwards, he started medication. We would notice an immediate change.

Ethan will always be quirky. It’s how God made him. He would not be who he is without it. He has started his college career and is doing great. He is working toward medical school, or sometimes a career as a history professor, but most days, medical school. He has a job at a car dealership as a porter. He is doing what he needs to do, when he needs to do it….mostly. After all, he’s still my Ethan.

When We Lived on the Flip Side

From the beginning of 2008 to the end of 2011, we lived in Shanghai, China. We were offered the opportunity for an assignment in China through my husband’s company and we thought it would be a great experience for everyone, but especially Mei Mei.

On this cold and snowy February day, I thought it was time to reflect on some of our expat days in Shanghai,  where it rarely snowed. The following is a blog I wrote on March 1, 2009. Slightly revised.

Grateful……Part 1

Many have heard of the advantages of being on an overseas assignment. Some of the more widely known benefits are things like having a driver, housekeeper, paid for private schooling, a large house,  and travel opportunities.  These are what you focus on when you are about to move your family to the other side of the world. They are vague, but intriguing,  and are really all you know when you leave your home.

After being here a year, I can tell you that there is so much more to it than that. We don’t just have a driver, we have Mr. Tao. Mr. Tao is in his mid 40s, and has a wife and college-age son. He was born and raised in Shanghai, and is one of the kindest people I have ever met. He would do absolutely anything we ask him to. He’s a very careful and cautious driver, and prides himself on never receiving a ticket or causing an accident. Unfortunately we were hit by another car last month, so I can no longer say he is never been in an accident, but he was not the cause.

He is great with the kids. Mei Mei and Mr. Tao have an especially close relationship. He loves her, and she him. He is protective of them and always makes sure that they are safe. To us, he is not just our driver but a good friend that we can always count on. When Mr. Tao and I are in the car together, I teach him English and he teaches me Chinese. We joke around, chat, and play tricks on Bill. He is a good friend, and we will miss him when our time here is over.

Our housekeeper, or Ayi (auntie), is Yuan-Yuan. She’s in her mid 30s and has a husband in Shanghai, and a school-age son and daughter in Jiangxi province where she was raised. They are cared for by her parents,  and twice a year she goes back to visit. She is at our home from 9 AM to 5 PM, Monday through Friday. She is also a very kind person, and a valuable member of our household. She would also do anything for us. I can leave for the day and when I return the house will be clean, laundry done, dinner will be made, and the dog and cat will have been fed. She only speaks Chinese so our conversation  is limited, but the more we learn the more we chat, and we even joke around with her a bit. We have recently begun paying for her to receive English lessons. When she speaks English, and I understand what she is saying,   I get very excited for her. I know when we leave she will continue to another job, and if she speaks English she will have more opportunities, and more pay. We want to take care of her by helping her prepare for the future.

Our Mandarin teacher’s name is Qing Qing. She’s in her mid 20s and single. She was born and raised in northern China, close to Beijing. She’s as cute as can be, and is someone who we go out on-the-town with every now and then. A few weeks ago, we went out with her and some of her friends to play badminton. I have also gone shopping with her, and we have taken her out to dinner several times. She’s fun to hang around, and speaks enough English for us to socialize with, while her Chinese allows us to do things that we otherwise could not, due to our limited vocabulary. She is also a great teacher, and I’m hoping that when we leave I will speak Chinese fairly well. I hope we are able to keep in contact with her when our time is done in China.

Our children are not only exposed to Chinese culture here, but many other cultures. We are surrounded by expats on a daily basis, from a number of countries. The kids not only have friends who are Chinese and American,  but friends from Japan, Korea, India, Thailand, Germany, England, the Philippines, Scotland, Australia, New Zealand, South America, Mexico, Switzerland, Belgium, Canada, and France. They attend an American school that is filled with children and teachers from these countries, and learn about other cultures everyday.

As part of their learning about Chinese culture and history, the middle school students go on one-week trips within China each year. In sixth grade our oldest went to Xian to see the Terra-Cotta Warriors, and in seventh grade he will go to Beijing to see the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, and Forbidden City. In eighth grade he will go to Guilin, where they will see the Karst mountains, Li River, and experience a number of outdoor activities. Each trip includes some sort of community service as well.

Last summer we took a trip to Hong Kong, and saw things we never would’ve imagined we would.  We spent a few days at Hong Kong Disney enjoying the park and pool. We also took the tram up  to Victoria Peak and cruised on Causeway Bay, both are famous historic sites. Things I have read about in books, but never thought I would see. Next month we will go to Japan, and are hoping to be there during the arrival of the cherry blossoms. We will visit Kyoto and its history of shoguns and temples. We will also go to Tokyo Disney, Disney Sea, and see a Cirque Du Soleil show. In May we are hoping to take Brennan and Mei Mei to Xian and Beijing, while the oldest is on his trip to Beijing with the school.

The common impression of the expat wife, is that while their husbands work hard on these assignments, the wives are enjoying the highlife. I cannot disagree that some things are easier here than at home, but others are not. There is usually more business travel and late hours involved in an expat job, so we give up family time with dad, and spend more time alone with the kids. We also give up many of the conveniences of the States. Shopping for groceries, and basic personal supplies is never easy.  Chinese people just don’t eat the same things, or use the same products as Americans. Many things are not labeled with any English. Doctors, dentists, specialists, and medications are all harder to find, and trust. You are  inevitably going to have to deal with a situation, or many, that are  going to be hindered by the language barrier. Frustration is a daily occurrence.

Besides the fun of making amazing new friends from all over the world, getting an occasional mani-pedi, shopping, and lunches,  I volunteer at the school at least once a week, and take Chinese lessons three times a week. I also hope to volunteer at an orphanage soon. I’m trying to learn all I can about China, and hope that I can use the experience and language to some benefit in the future.

It’s hard to imagine what we will take with us from this experience, the benefits will be innumerable and immeasurable, and ingrained deeply in who we are……….For this I am grateful.