Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Living in a Compound

I think we live in a colonial compound. It’s a circle of brand new swanky new houses built for senior scientists. One side of the street has Chinese scientists and the other has four Western Scientists and their wives. The entire garden except our compound supposedly has wireless. The kids (including our three) who can walk and talk, and two babies, run in and out of each other’s houses and speak a dizzying array of languages. The houses are all glass. That means if the girl next door comes over to play and I say “the kids are resting” She can say “no they aren’t I just saw Jonathan jump on his bed.” Adults are in and out quite a bit as well. Everyone removes shoes and I’ve started to recognize individual footwear habits. Mine are about three times the size of any other woman’s. This global glass house intimacy means that for example the dai nanny of the half Indonesian/half Dutch 18 month old next door noticed that our tv is never on. So while the kids and I were hanging out this morning she came in with the 18 month old on her back to fix the tv. When that didn’t work she decided it was time for Chinese lessons and began quizzing us on the little flashcards we bought last weekend.

All of the other kids are girls and two more are on the way. Jonathan explained to me “it’s a good thing I mostly played with girls in kindergarten and first grade so I’m comfortable with their play habits.” Eli has a bit more preschool machismo. The Sunday afternoon ramifications of this were that while the rest of the kids were INSIDE watching Kung Fu Panda Two, Eli was OUTSIDE doing his own kungfu and screaming so loud I thought he would be ejected from the garden. (and yes the irony of a bunch of children of white scientists hanging out in the jungle watching kungfu panda is thick…). He also attempted to use my phone as a missle/num chuck, which endeared him to his new admirer. Rona will be four next month. She was gone the first week we were here but came home and found true love in Eli and a goddess in Rebecca. At every wretched thing Eli does she collapses on the floor in hysterical giggles, which prompts him to do it more. When that becomes boring she follows Rebecca around who takes the opportunity to demonstrate an extreme big kid kindness, which she rarely lends towards her brother. Eli will have to be deprogrammed when we go home. One of his new favorite games is hopping on his crappy little bike, pedaling about three rotations and announcing, “I’m going to wooook. You stay home and take care of becca and jonny. Make Sure they do their home wooook”

We’re still spending a fair amount of effort on set-up/ getting used to things. I have a feeling we’ll get it all worked out just in time to leave. I’ve been having an epic battle with the Kindle app on my ipad trying to download new books without a wireless connection. I decided I simply could not live another day with out a copy of “The Frankfort School in Exile” and the latest of the “Red Princess” Mystries which are set in Beijing. And I routinely bribe the children with free Kindle books and games. After more hours than I’ll admit I got everything to work with the Kindle but failed with the iPad until we discovered the sneaky fact that the graduate students have wireless in their office (Manuel does not) so I can hike to the lab, hang out with the students, and synch my ipad. Meanwhile, should I have any cooking questions those can be attended to as well. The kids are also figuring things out and Jonathan took his first ride on the back of a Vespa today. He hates carousels, roller coasters, and anything fast so he has avoided all activities that involve this mode of transit. Today, he was shamed by a four-year-old girl and off he went to the soccer game. We were all so relieved when the kids made it back safely a few minutes into a gigantic tropical thunderstorm that we ignored the fact that they returned on the back of a bike of someone they and we had never met and who spoke no English; she seemed very nice. When I came home from my first substantial bike ride in 10 years in one piece, the kids asked over and over again if I had gotten lost or had any falls.

One of our many challenges this summer is keeping the children occupied in a place with no swimming pool, two other kids who speak their language, no familiar food, no lessons, no activities etc… I’ve been cooking up various school activates; usually in the afternoon. Today they decided they wanted to sketch the lilly pond As it turned out all three have fallen in love with the toxic watercolors we bought last weekend. So Rebecca packed a backpack with watercolors, brushes, little glass bowls wrapped in kitchen towels for mixing colors, and paint brushes. They spent a good hour idyllically mixing colors and making “abstract” pictures. This was followed by an hour of truly wretched behavior including Rebecca sneaking out of quiet time to go next door and Eli taking the laundry off the line THREE times.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

How to Make Bread in Bamma-without an oven

1. Listen to your children ask for bread or toast for 8 days and instead feed them something that is supposed to be bread but tastes like a bad brioche and the consistency of chewy cotton with sweetened beans stuck in throughout. Be sure to carefully pick the red beans out of the center if they refuse to believe that said beans are “Chinese chocolate.” Be patient when every day the supposedly bright children seem surprised not to have a delivery from ABC bakery in Charlottesville or even a nice English Muffin.

2 Send daughter over to Indonesian neighbor’s house where she is given sticky rice balls with chicken inside and similar rice balls will be sent home with her. Kids will act incredibly satiated and start hanging out at next door neighbors house looking hungry.
The sight of hungry American children will lead the neighbor to lend a bread machine.

3. Go to the “big city” an hour away to buy supplies. This will be no small feat and will involve a driver and an 11-seater van that looks like something one of those crazy families on reality shows with 14 kids would drive around. Also bring a couple of Chinese graduate students to guide you through the big city. Walk through a park whose most interesting thing is the birds who are brought there for a conversation hour so they don’t get lonely. There will be 20 year old pieces of carnival equipment which the kids will not want to play on. Instead they will cling shyly to your legs on a hot jungle day. This is a Mekong river town…. On the way to the grocery store stop at a bookstore and purchase hilarious books for 75 cents with Chinese on one side on English on the other. Also purchase Legos for $2, art supplies and an ashtray with Barak Obama dressed in a Chinese military uniform. Pass two floors of giant tv’s playing tinker bell in Chinese. Endure one MASSIVE tantrum by the four-year old because he wants a toy, a computer, and/or a washing machine. Next go to Mei Mei CafĂ©, which serves Western Food. The pizza and milk shakes with actual ice cream will be a hit. Next walk to a bike store to purchase bicycle helmets, which turn out to cost more than the bikes themselves. Chinese people will all look at you like you are crazy for this making this purchase. Nobody will get your ESP or pantomime about what a pain in the butt recovering from a massive concussion is. Given the number and speed of motorcycles riding on sidewalk, try to persuade kids to wear helmets at all times when outside. Fail.

5. Go to the supermarket. Get pushed in a great mass of people upstairs where they do not have food but do have endless isles of plastic shoes, clothing and cosmetics. Gesticulate wildly for about 15 minutes trying to figure out where the ramp that takes you and the cart down from the clothes section to the food section is. The ramp will be delightfully full of crappy plastic things that the children will want as well as shrink-wrapped pickled chicken feet. But it will also have the first Q-tips spotted on this continent. Joy.

6. Suffer complete sensory overload from a crowded store full of brightly colored foods. Listen to the children ask for an unnamed sweet object every three seconds. Find the bulk section with rice and stuff that looks like four. Try with sign language to locate sticky rice, flour, and yeast. When sign language fails attempt to use a few Chinese words. When that fails gesticulate wildly while holding up some rolls. When that fails call the Indonesian woman on the phone and she will attempt to talk to the grocery store lady. But don’t forget that she is INDONESIAN not CHINESE so this will not work. Receive a text from said neighbor with the word for yeast. Still no luck. Give up and exit store. Go to the check out line with 96 individual containers of “pure milk” in a box and various other goodies. Attempt to use your new VISA acquired specifically for this trip. It will be cruelly rejected. Pay in cash. Find the English speaking graduate student and go back into the store. She will then speak to multiple people and they will present you a bag of stuff, which you will not notice is the wrong color to be yeast. Exit the store and the other English speaking graduate student will tell you to use that for dish washing. On the way home stop at the local super market in the small village where they will have individual packets of yeast labeled “yeast” in English—kind of like they do at Giant or Whole Foods.

6. Wake up Sunday morning excited to make bread. Realize the bread maker was purchased in Europe and will require an adapter to get from a European plug to a Chinese plug. This will involve unplugging the surge protector and trying three different converters. It will also flip the circuit in the kitchen. Next realize that the measurements are in grams, not Tsp etc… Attempt to google for conversions. Oops the computer will be in the kitchen without an Internet connection. Curse. Remember from NICU days that 500g is 1 pound and see what that does for you—not much. Hook up a second computer to the Internet for the tsp to gr conversion. In the middle of this go outside to chat with neighbors who all sweetly want to know if you’ve made bread yet. Somehow notice that five kids are in your house and your two boys are screaming and hitting each other. One is using your phone as a billy club. Go back inside and continue bread project. You will have to use one measuring cup for everything and a hot-and-sour soup spoon as a flour scoop. You will spill some and need to grab the bamboo broom so as to avoid tracking flour through the entire house. Push start on the bread maker and listen to your children ask if it’s ready every three minutes.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Calmer days....

We have recovered from Wednesday’s market disaster. Part of the recovery involved NOT GOING to the market or, rather, sending Manuel on a bicycle without anyone else, esp. our punching-thunder-tempered-wretched-four-year-old. Tomorrow we head to Jing Hong—the city we flew into, which promises a western restaurant and a grocery store. As of tonight we have acquired a bread maker—borrowed from the Indonesian woman next door. She claims flour and yeast can be procured in the city. I’m also told that I can purchase chicken without the feet, head, eyes, feathers, etc…. And we have pretty much cleaned the town out of milk so we can buy a few cases of that. The two boys drink more little boxes of milk than the rest of Xishuangbanna and Sipshawnbanna combined. The kids continue their acquisition of Chinese words and yesterday learned to say butt. Thankfully, their 8-year-old tutor claimed not to know the words for poop or pee, which they also asked about. The cultural exchange of book v. practical knowledge continues, and today’s discourse involved explaining that “many men in Malaysa have an earring in one ear indicating that they have survived a work accident” The local response was “Chinese men have earrings because they like to look silly.” Tonight we’re discussing the epistemology of ghosts. The other wives are apparently afraid of the ghosts that live up the hill and claim the dead don’t rest easy here. So the kids want to know if ghosts are real and while we’re at it they want to know about the difference between a ghost and a reincarnated. I have no response. And in nature lessons they have discovered the joys of rainy season mud and seem have discovered every possible way to get full of red mud which leaves delightful little footprints all over the white house. It was even prettier when they fell into the Lilly pad pond. I had to promptly call Manuel on the phone and ask him if there were any diseases in the water—he says no. We’ve instituted a foot washing station in order to keep the dai cleaning ladies from killing us. And yes we do have two cleaning ladies that come every single day. That might be my favorite part of being here!

One of the most bizarre things about being here are the cognitive dissonances created by technology. In the event of an emergency we could not possibly get home in less than three days. But we can email, facebook, skype and google phone at will. This means that, for example, I google phoned my grandparents. The shock almost did them in but……. On their planet granddaughters don’t call from China. And my sister sent me a text from Harvard Yard saying she was waiting for the graduation procession. The kids have had some moving skype calls with their cousins, mostly related to the butt and potty themes mentioned above. One of my friends pointed out that I could go into business as a girlfriend night shift—my all night is all day in the States. (It’s also with noting that when Eli wanted my attention rather than whining or pulling on my arm he merely unplugged the internet cable thus disconnecting the call….). This is all radically different from when I did this kind of travel twenty years ago. When I taught in rural Kenya I had to walk or hitch to a town a few miles away to make a phone call, which I did once a week at most. When I was in Bratislava playing in the opera orchestra and my sister was dallying with Tibetan Buddhism in Katmandu my parents said we could talk on the phone for her birthday. I tried to call her and was told “there is no such country.” She finally reached me at a hotel in Prague. We spoke for ten minutes and it cost $265 bucks. That was the end of that. And while she was shacked up with a Tibetan monk, airdropped into the Himalayas, my parents received no contact from her for a month other than a fax from a trekker who had passed through. When Kircher fashioned a speaking tube to talk to porters in the courtyard, I doubt that in his wildest dreams he imagined the possibility of talking to China. Nor, I’m sure, did Bell when he made his gadgets for recording the vibrations of speech imagine anything like this.

And there is the much-touted completely uneven modernization of China that plays out in technology and is tied to class and status. With the proper gadgets and skill we can watch John Stuart on hulu, download books onto our kindles, practice Chinese on youtube, and other fun things. But I got misplaced running the other day and wandered into the area of the garden where the ground crews live, and they have no running water or electric wires. While we were playing in the lily pond, the kids found a set of bathroom tiles. It turned out the construction dudes were using the pond to wash them. The same woman who gave me the bread maker explained to me how to make sticky rice by picking a banana leaf from up the hill (with the ghosts). The market has a booth that sells cell phones but vegetables are weighed with a scale that looks like Confucius might have used it.

Tonight’s wild life excitement was a lizard crawling up the wall.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

market disaster

This morning was fine. I went for a short run and did some yoga on the concrete marble floor while Manuel biked to the grocery store to buy some things that are too heavy for me—a case of milk etc.. The kids played outside and got filthy scaling the landslide

, which they had created by removing rocks. The afternoon—not so much. Keep in mind as background for this delightful expedition that the effect of me walking anywhere with my three (or four) children is as if I was a six foot tall woman walking on the down town mall in Cville wearing a bikini and toting identical quadruplets. It’s not the photo frenzy of Beijing but everyone looks and my limited vision is what stops me from being uncomfortable. Also keep in the mind that the local Dai people are described as “peaceful” “budhist” “quiet” etc… And there is no bustle here even in town.

My idea was that the spawn and I would go out to lunch and then do a bit of shopping. I should have known we were headed for disaster when we missed the electric bus that leaves fifty feet from our house. We missed it because when a yellow bus went by and I went to flag it down t the kids started saying "no it's for TOURISTS" (as if they aren't) for some reason I listened to them. And after ten minutes no bus came we called it a loss and went home for a snack of some goldfish I found in the bottom of Jonathan’s backpack. (in a bag but still) Then we headed back out for the 1:00 bus; fifteen minutes and an excruciating set of 20 questions rounds early. We finally made it and walked to the restaurant we had liked on Sunday. We passed water buffalo on the way. I’m getting more comfortable with chickens passing by my feet in restaurants and managed to order water in Chinese and use actual words for numbers. We had a yummy lunch of veggie-fried rice (with just some pork) and the best fresh orange juice I’ve ever had. Jonathan proclaimed, "the guide books is right they really do know how to make eggs in China" and both big kids agreed it was the best lime aid they'd ever tasted. I’m sure the ice cubes were toxic but whatever….. While we were eating it got to be about 120 degrees, which you could tell because the men who were by this point lazing around in no shirts were dripping with sweat. We went to the topless agricultural market and found roller blade store--too good to be true. The kids all tried on blades, knocked down every scoter in the place, and found ones they loved. Then I realized I had all of $3 in my purse. A series of hand gestures and phone calls for remote translation incurred during which I was silently cursing myself for not having taken a Chinese emersion class. The total lack of cash turned out to be the least of the problems since the guy wanted $500 for them (about $83 bucks). That seemed outlandish to me. Now that I think about it that's not bad for three pair of roller blades but..... Meanwhile the tyrannical third child had decided he wanted a gun. The Chinese talk about a little emperor syndrome—prized only children who are boys. Eli gave them all a run for his money. Why in a country that has no legal firearms, even for police, they have toy guns every three feet is beyond me. But Eli wanted one and he flew into an unabashed four-year-old rage prompting the entire market to stare and point at us. Not only did they point but they tried to help which involved wiping snot off his face, picking him up off the floor, and patting his head. For each intervention he punched someone until I picked him up and he started punching me, still screaming. Recall that these are a peaceful people and we’re already crowd stopping even when we are peaceful. Clearly we were not going to make it to the grocery store. Instead we walked at a snails pace through the wretched heat with big kids screaming "we really need to find an aya for temper of thunder so we can explore the local countryside without him." They were trying to say the Chinese word for nanny but it came out as the basic expression for "oh my, what a tragedy, yikes etc...." This word from their little white faces only added to the spectacle. At one point Eli walked into an air-conditioned hotel without us as if to check in. As he walked in I watched another shirtless guy ride a vespa out—by then I thought I was hallucinating from the heat. For the icing on the cake Rebecca came about 1/2 inch from getting run over by an old man on a Vespa prompting me to literally scream and screech. I was by that time carrying Eli and saying completely inappropriate things to him. Rebecca, who is easily terrified by the most innocuous things and screeches at least 37 times a day said “really mama I don’t know why you screamed. I’m fine and you’re the only one here who has gotten run over by anything.” We finally made it back to the bus stop where the bus driver took one look at the filthy kids and seemed to be saying "no way are you getting on my bus you sweaty yelling Americans.” Finally he warmed up to us after making the kids move seats three times and dropped us at the house of the Dutch guy next door. I think the logic was "I have no idea where you people belong but he looks a little like you and I want you off my dam bus" The big kids gave him a delightful thanks and bye in Chinese—performing good children. I dumped Eli in a long time out, although he’d pretty much forgotten what the offense was and am now fantasizing about a margarita and ice cream Sunday. The title nine add that flipped into my in box announcing “Today’s wow” of a print om bra top would undoubtedly be retail therapy if I thought anything would ever arrive here…. They make it sound like a printed oooooom will solve all your problems.

Monday, May 23, 2011

to market......

Today was our first day of attempting a routine. The kids seemed gung ho about home schooling, which has always been my idea of hell. I don’t even like to spend that much time in the kids classrooms-- I pay the school or taxes which go to the school to keep them occupied. And there are really smart people trained to teach them. But the fact that my kids are lazing around in a hammock during the hottest part of a rainforest day and have learned to suck on sugar cane suggests that the usual rules may not apply. The plan is to do outside stuff in the morning and inside “school” activities in the afternoon when it gets hot.

We started by picking up our fourth child and traipsing to the electric bus to go into town. The Botanical garden has a handful of western scientists but all are married to Asian women so I am clearly the only white woman who has been here for some time. And with four kids behind me I make quite a site. Although ethnic minorities are allowed to have more than one child the spectacle of three (or four) is still unusual. We have learned, which stalls stock “locally grown” produce and which are “second hand” as the student told me. We purchased lots of vegetables but were completely defeated by the spices which all looked like narcotics. We bought seven eggs, which were given to us in a plastic bag—three made it home. The grilled whole ducks tempted us—they look like market equivalent of rotisserie duck. But upon closer examination the birds still had head and feet and I just couldn’t walk around with a duck head in my backpack. We visited the much touted “yogurt store’ which turned out to be one fridge case with three different varieties of yogurt. I bought six individual containers and the kids had eaten three by the time we got home. All of this purchasing was done with hand gesturing, horribly mispronouncing Chinese words and the help of our eight year old translator. There is not a bit of any Romance language to be heard.

The kids had an interesting discussion about Tai Chi in which Jonathan informed Veruna that it was “the only martial art that is predominantly a solo practice.” Her response was “no it’s exercise old people do in the morning.” And so begins the 8 year old experience of book versus practical knowledge… I was also told by my kids that “in traditional dai villages tank tops are not worn” This was I believe a message to change out of my title-nine sundress. (the kind that the catalogues say you can do everything from running to cocktails in…) The guidebook apparently also recommends “mingling with the locals” which the kids said they want to do.

From my perspective the school part of the day is a way to keep the kids busy during the hottest part of the day Rebecca already informed me that I’m not a real teacher and suggested that I “incorporate age appropriate activities for Eli.” Jonahtan says he prefers it when “Mrs. Spencer OCCUSIONALLY works with him” The high point was Jonathan instructing Eli on handwriting. Jonathan’s handwriting is completely and utterly illegible. But he has been through the handwriting without tears routine with enough OT’s to understand the rhetoric. We did some Chinese animal flashcards on my ipad. Not surprisingly the kids remember vocabulary much better than I and are counting fairly proficiently already.

The oddest sound of the day was a bit of Dai pop music coming out of a very squeaky sound system that featured the incessant repetition of a bit of Mozart’s 40th symphony. I’m not making this up; it was the second phrase of the first theme transposed to Am and on a continuous sequence loop with ethnic dai words.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Tropical Sunday

Last night's moment of wow this is China involved happily falling into a lovely looking bed to find that it is actually only a box spring--as in harder than a futon. And as it turns out a solid concrete floor underneath that gorgeous fake marble is not super for a foot plagued by post-suv arthritis. And it is clear that we will need a kind of zen about transportation that is not natural to those of us who had babies during the era of the five point car seat. Concerns about booster seats and seat belts went out the proverbial window when I watched Rebecca hop onto an electric bike. She was on the bike with one very tiny woman, another 8 year old and an 18 month old—yes that’s four people on one bike—no helmets, flip-flops for everyone. The best part of that particular adventure is that it seems to have inspired both kids to want to ride a bike. They have borrowed one from their friend and are taking turns practicing.

I’ve now been on two runs during which I’ve neither gotten lost nor been swallowed by a banana tree. It’s crazy muggy here—like running through soup.
The route passes some roosters, chickens, a tea garden, banana trees, rubber plants, a tropical rain forest, and a giant lab complex that has the same slightly surreal ultra modern in the jungle feel as our house. We are in the middle of a botanical garden that is half public garden with tourists riding through it on stretch golf carts that look like the Catskills in the 1950’s and half scientific institute. The scientists all live “on grounds” which means, for example, one of Manuel’s Chinese collaborators popped over this morning as I was walking around with my sweaty and skimpy running outfit on and the kids were playing a rather loud fantasy game of some sort. It kind of felt like having the Dean stop by while you’re in your pj’s.

The technological accomplishment for the day was the acquisition of a hot plate that can accommodate the espresso maker, which releases us from the jungle latte of Folgers and boxed milk. And we successfully rode the electric bus to town, ate a lunch of excellent tropical juices, very good fried rice dishes (the vegetarian dish only had small pieces of pork, and the ‘acid and spicy Thailand flavor’ dish was acid, spicy, and delicious, and NO tantrums. We then wandered through town, admired the cosmetics stores, went to the supermarket, purchased a few more odds and ends, and lost no children. We caught the bus home, re-started the A.C., and deposited the children separately into rooms for quiet time. So far, so good.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Planes and Rubber Trees

We made it to the jungle. It took sixteen hours, two planes, and a bus but here we are. The kids were total troopers and read their kindles, played with travel toys, and every so often had a fight or a tantrum. We first flew from Beijing to Kunming where we had a delightful lunch of KFC and good humor style ice cream cones. The ice cream is very safe for me because there is NOTHING natural in it, not even milk. The five hour wait in the unairconditioned airport with not a single westerner in sight and people speaking all kinds of ethnic languages gave us the sense that we were going somewhere very far away. Kunming is a gateway city/airport to China’s southwest, which is something of a trekking center and one of few locations with an ethnic majority.

We then flew to Jing Hong which is the capital of Xixhuangbanna Dai Autonomous region in Yunnan province. And it really did feel different as soon as we got off the plane. We were met at the gate by a grad student at the garden and a driver who promptly whisked the kids and I through the evening rain to the eleven-seater van they’d brought for us and our millions of bags. As we drove down the road with the vegetation getting thicker and thicker I had the distinct impression of moving towards an episode of Lost. As soon as we got here the kids, who had been sacked perked up to go exploring. We’re living in a brand spanking new house, built by an alcoholic French architect with the explicit intention of attracting Western Scientists. It’s completely pristine including all white floors, which I imagine we’ll trash in about a week. It took us quite a while to figure out how to use the solar shower, and the woman who cleans the house quickly gave up on trying to explain the laundry to us and did it for us this morning. My favorite part is that the stove is smarter than we are. The burners only work with certain pots. So for example if you try to put your stovetop espresso maker on it, which you carefully brought with you, it simply beeps loudly and shuts down. It also comes equipped with two separate fancy tea sets. The internet is not wireless but it is super fast—faster than anything in Charlottesville.

The kids woke up early and immediately spotted the eight-year-old girl who lives next store. Veruna speaks Dutch, Indonesian, Chinese and English and was completely thrilled to see them as well. By 9 am they were bff’s enough that we brought her to town with us. The town is called Melung and is on the Mekong river. As it turns out, having the eight year old translator in addition to the graduate student was quite useful, and she was quick to lead the kids towards the hideous pink marshmallows in the grocery store. The supermarket is small and has bread product but nothing resembling cheese or yogurt. When Manuel finally successfully pantomimed , they brought him to a refrigerated part of the store and showed him some “caned fresh meat” that had a picture of a seahorse on it. Luckily, Jonathan and Eli have both taken to the milk in a box. The meat section of the outdoor agricultural market included an entire pig’s face and feet, a table full of pig liver (which Manuel used as an opportunity to explain the etymology of ), and sheep intestines. We settled on rice, bok choy, and tofu for tonight’s dinner with a cucumber & tomato salad, and oreos & Yao Me (Chinese fruit that is a cross among a cherry, a plum, and an indian strawberry) for dessert.

The farmers are largely Dai. Dai people consist of 56 ethnic groups but are recognized as one group by the Chinese people. They speak a language akin to Thai and have a 28 letter alphabet. They tend to be quite Buddhist, and the market has a calm to it that is quite unlike markets I’ve seen anywhere else. I spent much of the day yesterday reading the lonely planet’s guide to Yunnan, which made me very curious about the local culture. Apparently the Dai are known for a solo opera called Zhang Khap.

We were all a little shell shocked from the journey and from the surrealness of being here and spent much of the day inside unpacking, reading, and, of course, tantruming. The surreal part comes from the fact that the kids picked rubber off of rubber trees, played with mysterious and brightly colored bugs, and hung out under banana leafs, but we have central air and a fancy tea set. And we have a 32” flat-screen tv (cable) with an English station consisting of nothing but Chinese propaganda. Manuel’s great accomplishment today was changing the Chinese font on the house computer to English so the boys could play Ben10 Destructo.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Taxis and Acrobats

On Tuesday Manuel went off to a conference at the Chinese Academy of Science, which featured Chinese science dignitaries, a successful talk and a dinner with duck feet and donkey meat. (I’m vegetarian bound this summer) The kids and I headed for the infamous Chinese acrobats. The kids LOVED it although Eli did manage to fall asleep standing up during the grand finale. The acrobats were pretty stunning—like the Olympics meets the circus meets ashtanga series five meets slightly erotic dancers. Musically it was truly bizarre. It may just be that I’ve spent too much of my adult life learning to read musical signs of gender and sex or that I’m just too western classically ingrained to hear repeated thumped augmented seconds as anything but exotic. But the sound made it seem like something not totally g rated. (it was a family show, kids and groups of high school kids etc.) Everything the men did was accompanied by incessant electronic thumping with low drums and low pitches. The men all wore very few clothing and did a lot of chest thumping and grunting. The women on the other hand were decked out in flowers and pastels and performed slightly homoerotic contortions to high pitched slow melodies with chromaticisms thrown in all over the place. It was textbook western fantasy of exotic Asian-other music. But the audience was almost all Chinese. I don’t know enough Post colonial theory to know quite how to read the whole thing.

Meanwhile the kids and I had a long discussion about adventures and how sometimes when you’re traveling things are not smooth and that things that seem scary are just part of the experience. This all had to do with the cab rides which have proven much more hairy than the subways. I didn’t quite have the guts to deal with the subway on my own with the three kids so attempted to hail a cab. On the way there an elderly woman took pity on me and hailed it for me. She did this after looking at Eli’s hands and saying “dirty” “wash” which made me feel like a wretched mother. She then caught a cab in the middle of the street and motioned for the kids and me to make a run for it. I’m a little sensitive about being hit by cars so not entirely comfy standing out in the middle of a busy Beijing street where the drivers pride themselves on how close they can come to the pedestrians. Going home was even more special. We first spent about 20 minutes trying to hail a cab. Finally one stopped and the guy appeared to be very sweet; singing to the kids in Chinese. Then he started hitting his meter and announced, “meter broken” He had a woman in the car who told us she was his wife. He then asked me how much to take me to the hotel and proposed an astronomical price. At that point I said no way and hauled the kids out of the car. We got off on a side street and decided to find dinner and try again. This was a street with no food so after 45 minutes of again trying to get a cab on a very large road with me carrying Eli who was crying because he was tired, Rebecca carrying my back pack and Jonathan crying because he had to pee and his eyes hurt I found a hotel who hailed us a cab. (Rebecca kept saying I wish the boys would just behave) We walked home on the main street by our hotel—again a no food street. So we ran into our rooms, washed our hands, and zipped out to get the kids ice cream. They collapsed in bed and I had Cadbury eggs and Mongolian bagel for dinner. Mongolian bagel was left over from the night before and was actually more of a bialy—flat and salty. And apparently one eats it to store up for crossing the desert. Manuel arrived home cheerful but not too drunk to realize he should downplay how much fun he had being dined and feted and then driven home by the lab director’s chauffeur.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Lama Temple

The kids and I have now had our first adventures out without Manuel. I’m usually quite daring with these sorts of things but I have to admit I was nervous here. I can’t read maps so I usually get around by gut instinct and asking people direction every three feet. That doesn’t work here. The Olympic park was our first activity and we were basically tossed out of a cab at what looked like a large abandoned highway. The place is truly bizarre, large and gorgeous with nothing going on. Four lane highways are slow pedestrian zones. The excitement really came a few moments after we sat down to have a snack and read our books. The kids quickly realized that a group of about 20 tourists were taking or pictures of us. As soon as we looked up photographers got even more excited and animated and many wanted to pose with us including quite a few who actually picked the kids up. I’ve bee stressing to the kids that we are interlopers in another culture that we have to be polite and respectful and understand that things are different here. So they’ve been reasonably good sports with the photographs. But after about twenty minutes of this even I started to get irritated. I’ll have to figure out the protocol on this. I’m not comfortable saying no but I’m also not comfortable with complete strangers picking up my kids, hugging them, kissing them, and surrounding them in crowds of 30 or so.

We then met Manuel at a dinner hosted by his colleague at the Chinese Academy of Science. I was predicting the worst; miserable behavior from the kids, etc… But was pleasantly surprised. The boys went to sleep and Rebecca enjoyed being the belle of the ball; flirting up a storm and trying a ton of new foods. It was truly spectacular food speaking; there must have been fifteen side dishes surrounding an entire roast lamb. The lamb included eyes, kidney’s and other parts I’d rather not think about.

This morning we went to the Lama temple; the largest Tibetan Budhist temple outside of Tibet. It was perhaps my favorite thing so far. The 18 meter high Buddha was stunning. It’s easy to see what early modern explorers were so utterly captivated and even afraid of what they saw. The kids were awed in good and bad ways. Eli was frightened of the fires that are kept burning for worshipers to light their incense. He ultimately relaxed enough to start doing his own bowing before the Buddha. (this seemed very bad form to me; like kneeling in a Catholic church when you’re a Jew) Jonathan and Rebecca were very intent on identifying every Buddha and figuring out what they stood for.

Eli has now extended his pretend play to include quite a lot of Chinese and interject his own imitations of Chinese phrases into the star wards leitmotifs he regularly sings. Rebecca and Jonathan are spending a lot of time in their own slightly wacky twin world. They have a system for walking up and down stairs and escalators that involves holding hands and have all kinds of fantasy worlds up and running. They are thrilled with the fact that boy/girl twins are called dragon and phoenix.

This is not news to anyone who has been to Beijing or read about it, but the cognitive dissonance between old and new is stunning. On the one had the CCTV building designed by looks like two gigantic futuristic donuts hugging each other. On the other the tiny streets of the hutongs are full of elderly Chinese people squatting before dilapidated buildings playing cards. Many of the buildings apparently still lack running water. The city I know best outside of the US is Rome and it too is a remarkable mix of old and new. But Rome is a city of layers; ancient ruins, topped by baroque churches, next to fancy designers. This seems more a city of polar opposites.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


Today we are laying low after two days of heavy site seeing. Yesterday was the Summer Palace, which was quite remarkable and which the kids loved. Since arriving in China, Chinese scientists are coming out of the woodwork to show us around. What this turned out to mean yesterday was that they sent a lovely female graduate student who knows a lot about remote sensing and climate change and who spoke almost no English, had come to Beijing from inner Mongolia three months ago, and had been to the Summer Palace once. However, Rebecca fell completely in love with her and we had a lovely day. She got a huge kick out of taking a picture of herself with what she called “my three children.” When we initially arrived at the palace, we were immediately spotted by a Chinese tourist group each of whom wanted to take their pictures with the kids. The kids are for the most part being good sports about this picture taking business, and Eli is turning it into a game. By next week he will be charging them. There are very few Westerners around at this point.

The kids turned into climbing machines and especially like climbing to the top of the Buddha of 1000 arms, who they said ought to be called the Buddha of 1000 steps. I decided that I wouldn’t mind being an empress for a while. I especially liked the idea of incarcerating people you don’t like only while you are there. In other words while the Empress Cixi was not at the summer palace her enemies roamed free but when she was there she locked them up. I could think of various people whom that might work for. Manuel found a translation he repeated incessantly, “Temple of the Buddha’s body odor.”

Until about a week ago my knowledge of China until about a week ago came almost entirely from seventeenth century Italian Chinese artifacts and Judith Zeitlan’s wonderful work on 16th century Chinese courtesans. I’m learning a tremendous amount. So far this particular niche has proven useful, as many of the sites we have seen are 16th and 17th century oriented. Kircher’s China Illustra a 1667 encyclopedia of China is a classic. He shared with my children a fascination with Chinese Dragons that is completely grounded in Western Fantasy.

We got a little too brave at dinner and tried to find some restaurant my cousin recommended, which involved a subway ride and a two block walk. Beijing blocks turn out to be about 1/2 a mile. We then had to walk through a shopping mall that looked pretty much like an upscale mall here; Sephora, Guess, Nike, etc. Eli promptly fell asleep SITTING up. Apparently when he said he was tired he meant it. We put him on the couch that served as a dining room chair, which seemed fine until he fell off and hit his head on the ground making a large noise that made everyone jump and scoff. The waitress had already decided she hated us. Jonathan fell asleep a few seconds later and Rebecca stayed bubbly trying a bunch of new foods and looking forward to the shaved ice desert. My idea of an m and m for every new food tried has made her a culinary explorer. Jonathan woke up at the end of dinner wondering where the food was. It turns out also that getting places here is the easy part. Getting home involved flagging a cab, getting in, having the cab driver yell at us in what sounded like "wtf is wrong with you crazy Americans with all your dam kids and there is no way in hell I’m driving to your hotel in in that back alley" We called the hotel from our cell phone to try to get them to negotiate with the driver and the end result was us getting tossed out of the cab with THREE sleeping kids. The next driver, however, while also thinking us lunatics, drove us all the way up our hutong (narrow alley not meant for cars). Today we are exploring the hotel courtyards and washing the children who have become hazardous waste zones themselves.

My least favorite part of being here is my utter ignorance of the language. I’ve almost never been in a place where I’ve done no language study and it does not feel good. In addition, with Chinese’s being a tonal language, we can’t even tell when people are pleased with or threatening us.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

China arival....

It’s 4:34 in the morning and we are all awake!

The flight here fine in that fourteen hours in an enclosed box kind of way. Somehow our travel agent managed to get only Manuel an assigned seat, which meant that the kids and I were sitting separately. We also arrived at the airport to find that three of our four suitcases were too heavy so had to buy a new red monster suitcase in the gift shop. The $69 was cheaper than the overweight fees. There’s nothing quite like seeing your shampoo peanut butter, inhalers, bras, books, and deodorant flying around the airport. We were sure that someone would move once they took a look at the row but of course we were in economy plus and he was in steerage. The Chinese woman sitting net to us was fortunately quite charmed by the kids and gave Rebecca and gave her noodle eating lesson. The kids read their new kindle’s for much of the plane (thanks Joyce and papa) They also enjoyed watching the little map on the movie screen and “are we there yet” was quickly replaced by “we have 6,453 miles to go. Now we have 6, 325 miles to go etc…..” There was much excitement about flying over the north pole. At some point we decided it was tine to drug them and Benadryl was given to all. It seemed to have no effect on Eli other than to spin him into a mother of a 40 minute tantrum during which I gave him a second Benadryl He then fell asleep mid tantrum, as in standing on the floor and banging on the seat. I was slightly afraid that I’d overdosed him but he seemed to be breathing fine.

We are staying in a courtyard hotel. It’s fairly deep in in a Hutong, which are old neighborhood consisting of courtyard’s strung together. Guidebooks and Wikipedia tell me that they date back to the dynastic period and that many have been demolished. It is very peaceful, other than our kids waking everyone up yesterday by running around the courtyard. The practical implications are that cabs don’t drive in here and no one speaks any English. The local restaurants are “very authentic” and dinner number one was a complete and utter disaster featuring Jonathan screaming that he hates china, he wants to go home, he's never eating any food here etc....

Yesterday we spent the day with my cousin Jordan (a second cousin) and his wife. Rebecca is in love and spent the whole day flirting. It was a great but exhausting day featuring lunch, the forbidden city, a subway, a bus, the apple store, a shoe market, and a park. (the kids and Manuel skipped the errand parts) Jordan was a freshman at Brandeis when I taught there and he did at one point pick me up and toss me over his shoulder which I found not helpful to my authority. They took us to a delicious restaurant with some sort of porridge that Eli and Rebecca loved. Rebecca tried “nine new foods.” It helped that I promised the kids one m and m for every new food they tried. They bravely tried just about everything. We found Jonathan a corn pancake, which he liked and Jordan and his wife spun into some very complex negotiations in Chinese to get him plain noodles with nothing on them. We also went to the Forbidden City. Joanthan’s first remark was “it’s a pity they removed so much of the gold from the roofs during the Quing dynasty.” Rebecca explained that the carved animals were a sign of “wealth and prosperity” The second grade SOL’s are certainly paying of here. Unfortunately a few days ago some artifacts were stolen from the Forbidden City and many of the exhibits are closed or empty of jewels. This kids said “What’s the point of seeing the hall of heavenly peace if it doesn’t have anything in it…..”

Manuel took the kids back for a nap in the afternoon. Despite our lectures about the virtues of pushing through jet lag all three fell asleep and basically woke up to sleep eat some pizza. And yes we did go to a pizza place on our SECOND day in China. This was an attempt to appease thing 2 who barely woke up. The boys completely sleep ate…

Eli has no clue what is happening and woke up yesterday asking where the Subaru was how we’d get around without it. He loves the squat potties in restaurants and thinks we should get one at home. “this is willy gweat I just peed in the floor….” The kids are attracting a ton of attention which I thought they didn’t notice until Rebecca asked “how come all these people are staring at us all the time” We explained that we look different and that most Chinese people have only one kid. The kids are also getting touched a lot—lots of tactile admiration of their hair. So far they seem not especially bothered. Jonathan announced that he’s tired of meeting people we can’t talk to and both kids now want to learn Chinese. Eli thinks he knows Chinese and is perfectly happy talking to people in a mixture of English and what he imagines is Chinese. This is the first time in decades that I’ve been to a country where I understand zippo. And it is indeed disarming. The thing about being good at one Romance language is that all the others fall into place. So I think I will try and find us a student to teach us some Chinese when we get to the “garden of nice words.” I doubt we’ll get very good at it but it’ll give us something to do…

Monday, May 9, 2011


I just checked out the web site of the botanical garden where our pagoda/hut will be located. It is Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden XTBG).I was looking for some sort of official land line emergency number—the “if someone dies or there is a natural disaster here’s how to reach us thing” I came across the garden rules and am now afraid our kids will be ejected. I also have visions of them spending the entire summer in some sort of institutional time out. Here are the two that concern me.

4. Be courteous please. No fighting or nasty words may occur in the Garden.
5. Please take good care of any tree and grass in the Garden. Not any flower or branch is allowed to be cut. No climbing. No scribbling. No paddling in the ponds.

Let’s just say that we are not specializing in kind words this week and that Rebecca and Joanthan have spent the better part of the weekend IN the tree next door.

Meanwhile Manuel now tells me we are not “technically” going to the jungle. However I found our spot in the guidebook and on the web and both call it a jungle. So the technical biophysicological definition is not interesting to me just now.

We’re now in completely spastic mode of prep. Manuel has been to the cvs so many times that the check out ladies know his name. I’m making all kinds of lists, which seem to get longer rather than shorter. The kids leave today to have some quality time with their grandparents before we leave. This was my sister’s brilliant idea. Their help has of course been invaluable. I especially liked it when Jonathan put a giant wooden star of David shield that he made in woodworking in the pile to come with us. (it looks kind of like a very small maccabee has come to town) It was equally nice when they retrieved items from the trash and got the brilliant idea that perhaps they should burry some treasures in case some “hobos” moved in. And every day for at least the last two weeks Eli says “aw we goin to china today. Awww why not?”

Sunday, May 1, 2011


I think we should just call the pediatrician and make an appointment for every day at 4:30 until we leave. Friday night’s chaos involved Eli with an oozing superbug infection on his leg, 9 kids and three adults at the spring fling, and a slumber party with two extra kids.

For much of this year Manuel and I, along with Ms. Meyer, have been driving kids to school events who would otherwise not get to go. These are kids whose parents don’t have cars, work long hours, etc. If I were of a different socioeconomic class and/or with a different kind of partner, those kids would be my kids. I depend on my husband and my friends having the time, money, and willingness to cart my kids around. So, despite the irony of someone who can’t drive organizing driving, it makes sense.

But this week I had decided that it might be time to just assume that if we could keep our own three children in one piece we were doing well. Rebecca, however, had other ideas and came home with phone numbers and little notes from two friends at school whose “mommy’s can’t bring them and really really want to go…” Just as we were about ready to leave the house Manuel took a look at Eli’s leg and jumped into action. (Thankfully, he knows what these things look like) and had me call the pediatrician. That meant that when we got to a neighborhood with a bunch of kids whom we know playing outside, all of whom wanted to come to the spring fling, I had the nurse on the cell phone and a bunch of kids jumping up and down about spring fling. So Manuel stayed with our spawn while I gatheredp some kids and got permission from an adult in charge to drive them; exchanged pleasantries, admired babies, etc… Spring fling was shockingly uneventful, and the kids were remarkably well behaved and followed our rules, which involved periodically checking in with one of the three of the adults present. (Ok our middle child was not well behaved but he has never made it through a large event without a meltdown. This is community service; the other parents can feel glad it’s not theirs. He was especially pathetic weeping at the pizza table because they were out of plain) We finally got everyone home at about 9:00, including two extra children whom we had promised could have a slumber party here. Efficient parents that we are, all were asleep by 11:30.

The kids were, of course awake at 6:30 and involved in some fantasy game that involved hundreds of Playmobile guys who every so often needed a head change. Do they really need to make those guys so easy to decapitate? By some miracle Manuel actually managed to get all three kids out to the soccer game. Both players had announced, in various charming not quite age appropriate ways, that they were not going. (Yup another tantrum from thing 2) Despite the fact that I couldn’t care less about peewee soccer and think my kids have little future in this, I delivered a moving lecture on “commitments to the team etc.” and maintained a straight face. While they were gone the most important China prep task was accomplished. My computer is now China-ready. The culmination of the 24 hours of chaos was Eli, on Saturday evening, deciding to taste baking soda. It’s true that baking soda is harmless but it’s never a good sign when your kid announces that his tongue was going to fall off and was burning.

Another interesting thing about leaving for three months is that absolutely every thing one can possibly do is requested in the last days. Let’s just say that in addition to a rockin twinkle twinkle in Eli’s preschool class and a command lecture in Italian on “Music in Italy” to people who turned out not to really speak Italian anyway, UVa is getting their money out of me. But I woke up on Friday morning to this email from my friend Grace. That’s what friends are for—to crack you up.

Dear Dr. Gordon,
I was thinking about getting Italian marble in my new bathroom. I would like to request that you come and speak to the marble for me. I know the marble will feel better about joining our household if someone explains this to it in its own language. Perhaps, as I hear you are an accomplished musician, you could play some Italian versions of twinkle for it too?