In an Instant……..

And in an instant the next blog post has changed. A broken bowl spins on the floor, the high-pitched din it makes slowly fading, until it is gone. An angry child sees the consequences of carelessness that comes from anger. From not concentrating on the task at hand. This reminds me of all the other things in life, that change in an instant.

Last year, we were preparing for a championship sports weekend with one of our kids. Proud parents. All, or most, seemed right in our world. Yet in an instant, we are in a hospital emergency room. There will be no championships for us. The rest of the spring, summer, year, will be a trial in strength. It will change our priorities. It will remind us of what matters.

In August, just after returning to their winter home, my father has a stroke. He has been the healthier one. In an instant, he is not. My mother is scheduled for neck surgery, so I leave my husband and kids to care for my parents for five weeks. That’s what we do. We honor thy mother and father.

Years ago, May of 1998 to be exact, I was a mother with a two-year old son, but in an instant, I was a mother with Crohn’s Disease, and a two-year old son. That instant, that diagnosis, of course was just that. It is just a moment I remember well. Too well.  And that day in August 2002, the instant that I got my life back. When that foul, damaged, organ was removed from my body. When I started learning how amazing life really is.

The night my husband asked me what I thought about moving to China, was the instant I realized that I was braver than I ever gave myself credit for. The instant I realized that I was meant to be a world traveler. I wanted the adventure. I wanted to live in the moment. It was the moment I realized that too many people die without doing the things they would have really liked to, hampered by fear of the unknown.

The instant that I discovered that living and traveling abroad, has changed me at my very core. That I will never be the same person I was when we left, but more. That I will constantly dream of other places in the world. Where we can go, when we can go, or go back. And the realization that the possibility of that, can disappear in an instant. Nothing is guaranteed.

My oldest turned 18 a little over a year ago, and I suddenly realize that he is “officially” an adult. We all know that this is relative. There is plenty more learning and maturing that will happen. But in an instant, I no longer have control of many aspects of his life. His medical records and decisions. His school records and grades. I can’t call in for him when he is sick.  I have to hope that we have raised him well enough to do the right thing, or that he will ask us for advice.

Those moments, because they happen now and then, when you hear of a tragedy. When  you remember that your mother, father, siblings, husband, children, and friends, are not going to be here forever. That they, or you, could be gone tomorrow.  When the phone rings at an unusual hour, and your heart jumps into your throat. That your family could be broken, in an instant.

These “instants” happen throughout our life. Some are wonderful. Marriage, baby, adoption. Travel, new job, new house. Some are pretty good. Raise, good grade, great game. Some are disheartening. Sickness, job loss, broken pipe. Some are devastating. All of these instances put together, make us who we are. They remind us of the important things, and help us put events into perspective. They are a reality check. Because you just never know what could happen…..in an instant.

 

 

 

 

Chinese People-Watching

Gawkers in China

August 12, 2008

Gawkers are seen every day in China, much the same as in the US.  However, in China people seem to find vastly different situations, and ways, in which to gawk. This is not something that occurs only when a fight breaks out or someone is injured, it is a part of daily life. One’s day would not be complete, without a little bit of gawking to break things up.

There are several types of Chinese gawkers. Below I have listed a few examples:

1. The Celebrity Gawker: This person is usually found at the zoo, museum, or other tourist attraction. They are Asian descent and are so excited to see a westerner, they need to capture the moment on film. To prove that they were actually there, they are  required to be in the photograph as well. The smaller the westerner the better, and if that child is wearing red they are a moving target. There will be no avoiding this type of gawker.

2. The Opportunistic Gawker: This person is afraid that they will miss something that is important, deeply discounted, or worth any sort of money earned, if they do not stop to see what others are looking at. Usually involving some sort of sign or advertisement, you will see up to 10 or more Chinese people reading it at once.

3. The Drama Gawker: This is the person who sees someone talking to a police officer and goes over to see what the commotion is about. The difference between this situation in the US and in China, is that the Chinese don’t mind if people are aware they are gawkers.  They will walk right up to the incident as if they were also involved, therefore positioning themselves to see and hear better. This crowd will grow up to 20-25 people.

4. The Cultural Gawker: This person, or group of people, want to see what westerners eat, wear, read, drink, smell like, talk like, look like, feel like………you get the point. If you pick up an item at the grocery store they will look over your shoulder, or wait until you walk away, and then pick up the product to inspect. If you are in an arcade they will watch you or your children play video games for hours on end. You might think that this person is waiting to play, but if you walk away they will wander off, most likely to show up at the next game you play. If you are found in a bookstore by this gawker, they may just sit right down to watch you look at books, providing commentary in Chinese. When you look up, they will smile and nod.

Most gawking directed towards the expat is done in a good-natured, curious way. They are intrigued. They would love to be your friend, if that darn language barrier didn’t get in the way. They would ask questions if they could. Sometimes they do, in what we grew to know as “advanced charades.” We were curious as well, but our people-watching was done with the American approach. On that note……coming soon…..the American Gawker version.

Causing a Ruckus on Dong Tai Lu…

As the days of Dong Tai Lu in Shanghai end….. I fondly remember my time spent there.

Dong Tai Lu………

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Yesterday,  I met my friend Andrea, and her friend April who is visiting from Michigan, on Dong Tai Lu, or “antique street,” as we call it. It was an absolutely beautiful day in Shanghai, sunny and 60s, and great for a walk outside.

Dong Tai Lu is lined on both sides with tiny shacks that sell anything and everything that is old,  or even “looks” old. Items are cluttered all over tables, on shelves, and on the ground, and are often dirty or tarnished. It’s like a giant garage sale with every shack competing for your business. Many of you know that I am not a garage sale-type. I hate searching through piles trying to find something I like, but Dong Tai Lu has plenty of entertainment to go along with the shopping, and I usually find a “treasure” or two anyway.

Up and down this little street, along with the shacks, are locals,  usually grandmothers and babies.  They are sitting on the sidewalk, on folding chairs, holding babies with split pants. Yes, little bottoms hanging out all over the place, at the ready for any necessary potty breaks.  Smiling grandmothers, enjoying the company of neighbors, on a warm spring day.

It is common  to find lots of Buddhist items on antique street.  There are all sorts of Buddhas, prayer bowls,  prayer sticks,  jewelry, etc. There are also books, rugs, posters, porcelain dishes, vases, and figures. Ornately carved wooden boxes, old Chinese instruments, creepy old dolls, and bird cages.

There’s plenty of jade and bone in various forms,  and this is where the “visual” entertainment comes into the picture. Along  with charms, statues, and small swords and knives that can be found, there are also many things of a more “adult” nature. One thing that I purchased to bring back and show friends, merely for entertainment value,  is something we like to “Naughty Fish.” It looks like a regular wooden Chinese-style fish on the outside,  but if you pull its head off of the body,  you’ll see “naughty” pictures carved into the piece that fits into the body. You will find similar Kama Sūtra-type pictures on bone panels that are strung together, a different picture on each panel, and on both sides. Things like this can be found on vases, rugs, and in figurine form as well. It always amazes me that they sell this stuff in such a public place.

At one point, not long after we arrived,  Andrea saw a shoeshiner that she had met before, and asked him to shine my shoes. It turns out he’s a well-known shoeshiner, who has been featured on the news and in newspapers. He had a notebook with the names of many foreigners whose shoes he had shined, and had me sign it as well.  He was a cute and animated older guy, and it was a fun thing to do. He also gave me a GREAT shoeshine for under one dollar.

Along our way down antique street, April accidentally knocked something off of a shelf, causing it to break a plate below it on the ground. The vendor wanted us to pay for it, but we argued that she shouldn’t have had plates on the ground. Andrea and I went back and forth with her for a bit, while April worried about being taken off by the Chinese police.  Luckily, to our Michigan friend’s relief, the po-po wasn’t called. Andrea and I had a great laugh, as we knew that wouldn’t happen, and I think April joined in, once her heart rate went down.

Towards the end of our trip, I bought a small wooden boat at a stall, and a few minutes later, just down the street, another vendor came up to me with a much bigger boat. It actually was much nicer than the first one, and he started talking to me in Chinese. In the middle of his rant, he called me a “Ben Dan,” or “Stupid Egg,” thinking that I would not understand him. But I did, and knew that he had just insulted me! I started loudly announcing, in Chinese, that he had just called me a stupid egg, and I could not believe he  done this. This resulted in a crowd, of mostly older Chinese women, forming. This always happens in China when something interesting is going on and can grow quite large, with people of all ages. I continued to rant back at him for the show. He apparently thought I paid too much for the boat (the reason for the insult), and I probably did, although I had looked for one all day, and it was the only one I had seen. In the end,  I bought the bigger boat, even after the insult. Although, we did make him apologize. Maybe I am a Ben Dan!

 

For The Love of Two Worlds

Remembering China fondly today, it will always be close to my heart. This Valentine’s Day, I am posting a blog entry of mine from September, 29, 2008. For love of my second home.

Similaries and Differences

If I am sitting in my room with the windows open on a cool fall day,  I could be in China, or Michigan,  they both feel the same.  If the kids are playing in the park and I am sitting on the bench watching, it is the also the same. Sitting in Starbucks reading a book is no different. There are times in China that feel just like Michigan. When it’s hard to notice the differences,  but here we have luxuries that we would not have at home. Yuan-Yuan comes for the day to clean and cook,  and Mr. Tao pulls up in a silver Buick minivan to cart us all over the city. These things are very different. It  feels strange to have someone else taking care of my home.  I miss driving.  I miss having a car to jump into whenever I want to go somewhere.

There are many wonderful things about this experience,  many adventures to be had, but there are also wonderful things that we have left behind. We are seeing parts of the world which many will never see, we are learning a new language, and culture, but instead of learning it in a class, we are living it. We are strengthening  our minds and our spirits. It is a growing experience which I believe is very important for our children, especially in today’s world. Stepping out of one’s comfort zone is a hard,  but rewarding thing to do. I am proud of us for taking such a bold step. I am proud of my children, for  even though they may not have had much of a choice, they have handled it well.

We have left our home, friends, and family to move to the other side of the Earth. That was very hard. As we all know,  our home is a soft place to fall,  and when things get tough that is where you want to be. I look forward to the first time I sleep in my bed at home again, lying my head down on that soft pillow,  and being a car ride away from those I love.  We are doing great here, but we look forward to our upcoming visit.

There are so many differences in our surroundings here compared to home.  When a guest arrives, you bring them a cup of warm water. This is better for the body.  They will take off their shoes at your door even if you tell them they don’t need to. You must offer them a pair of slippers.  If you ask your Ayi or driver if they’re able to do something,  the answer will be “yes.”  They will not tell you that they do not want to do something,  or know where something is. That would be “losing face.”

There is not a fourth floor in most buildings,  as the word for the number “four” sounds too much like the word for “death.”  I’m sure Yuan-Yuan is not happy that Carleigh  has drawn a three foot tall “44” on the wall by the study. She has had to pass that forbidden Chinese number 20 times a day, and I think she’s afraid to touch it to wash it off. You can’t drink out of the tap, and must order water for the water cooler. Most bathrooms  STINK.  Here  you learn the places that have Western-style bathrooms and avoid the ones that do not. Tissue is always carried with you, as bathrooms do not always have toilet paper,  or soap, making  hand sanitizer a must as well. Surprisingly after the last statement,  there are always workers cleaning on the street,  and in the buildings.  You  will not have trouble finding someone to clean something up. Service in  restaurants is better than in the US, and no tip is required.  You must ask for your bill or it will never come.

You’ll never see more bikes than you see in Shanghai.  You will probably never see as many cars either. You would  be amazed at what can be fit on a bicycle. Don’t ever think you can’t move a refrigerator just because you don’t have a car. Nothing is too dressy to wear while riding a bike.  Heels are almost a must,  good for any occasion. Ankle-length nylons are fine with capris, or anything else for that matter.  Getting  there first does not mean it’s your turn,  getting noticed first does. If this means pushing to the front of the line,  so be it. Sleeping can be done anywhere, and is.

We enjoyed living in China. Its differences are intriguing and its similarities, when found, are little gifts.

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.

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.

Be Not Afraid

Today, I want to talk about our second son, Brennan, who is now 15. It is hard for me to know how my active Crohn’s disease years, played in on our sons development. They were so young, but also at that age where they were learning the most, and developing at the fastest rate that they ever would. Due to how sick I was, Brennan got more snuggles than anything else, and I often wonder if that is why he’s my most empathetic child.

When Brennan was a toddler he was a happy kid, full of deep belly laughs. He never stopped moving, he was always busy enjoying life. He seemed to think he was unstoppable: Invincible. When he was a little older, and learned that the world wasn’t always rainbows and unicorns,  he started saying a personalized bedtime prayer. He made it up on his own and faithfully said it every night, at least once, but more on less confident days.  My favorite part of the prayer was when he asked God to protect his family from natural disasters or getting thugged. We are a quietly religious family, and never really pushed bedtime prayers,  he did it all on his own. To this day he still says a prayer when he feels it is needed, although I do believe he has revised it a bit.

At the age of five, when Mei Mei came home, he was absolutely ecstatic. He’s always loved babies, so having a baby sister was the ultimate gift for him. At least at the age of five, because let’s  be honest, siblings don’t always get along. When she came home he taught her to crawl then walk. It was a very fast transition, as Chinese babies tend to be a little behind at first, but catch up quickly. He also taught her baby sign language. They played together all the time. They had a very close bond for years. When I see that peek out every now and then, despite the tension of one at the beginning of puberty, and one at the end, my heart melts.

At 15, he still gives plenty of hugs and says I love you everyday. He is the first to question if someone is okay, or ask if you need help. He talks to me about the good, the bad, and the ugly in his life, without prompting. What parent doesn’t cherish that time with their son or daughter?! He is also me, as a teenager, in boy form, new and improved. He reminds me of myself so much it hurts sometimes, but it also makes me proud. He’s a responsible student, and never has to be reminded of school work, is very funny, and never feels the need to come back at people with a nasty retort if they choose to be cruel to him. His confidence at this age far outweighs what mine was.

He has a love of life that I wish I had at his age, but I wish he didn’t worry about his future as much as he does. He has pondered over what he is going to do with his life, and how good his grades are, since 6th grade. I wish he had waited a few more years for those concerns. You don’t get those worry-free childhood years back. I know this is a result of our four years living abroad when he was between the ages of 8 and 12 (these years will be discussed in future posts), as those worldly experiences definitely influenced our children. I also wouldn’t change those years for anything. They helped form who Brennan is today.

Today was Brennan’s day. I am blessed with three children. They are my heart and soul. I cannot say enough, how proud I am of them.