Thursday, June 30, 2011

Red Dress

There’s nothing like a special grocery delivery from Beijing and Internet to cheer up a jungle princess. Manuel’s friend Jake arrived last night after I went to bed so I woke up to a strange man on our couch and whole wheat flour, butter, cereal, pretzels, bagels, cheese, pita bread and more. The kids jumped for joy at having cereal for breakfast and pizza for lunch. Between Jake’s deliveries, my mom’s package and the crappy toaster oven we finally had the makings for cookies. The texture was a little funky but the kids literally licked the plate and were completely silenced by the food.

Jake and Manuel have a piece coming out in Nature next week, which epitomizes the difference between publishing in the sciences and in the humanities. They submitted it last week and it comes out next week. They apparently plan to do another one before August. I submitted an article two years ago and it will probably come out this fall. And even that depends on me wire-transferring money from here to the Vatican. (I’m assuming my sister/financial manager will take care of it for me)

As for the Internet we were all like crack addicts. When it came back on the seven kids in my house huddled around the computer playing some dumb dress up game. I admit it I suffered just as badly and had a screaming fight with Eli over computer usage. Again I realized how much we need internet here to live in the style we are accustomed to. I couldn’t skype any of my home girls for a dose of American feminism. I couldn’t call or skype my mom to discuss the package she sent. No TV. No face book. No online metric conversions. No google translator to figure out what the grandfather of the girls up the hill was trying to say to me. I had visions of him trying to tell me an earth-quake was coming my way.

The power and Internet here mystifies and frustrates everyone. Yesterday I ran into a Dutch post-doc hauling a giant server size computer across the basketball cout towards the electric bus. Huffing, puffing, sweating and cursing he made quite a sight and I’m afraid the kids and I all cracked up. He explained that he needed to run a computer program that took 4 days to run and after two months of trying to get consistent internet access in the fancy new lab he gave up and moved the whole operation somewhere else.

I’m getting a little anxious about the 90th birthday celebration of the communist party. Since agreeing to play viola at this event I’ve learned that it’s a rather bigger deal than I thought. In addition to the participation of various high-ranking officials here the event is part of a larger project of red song revivals; essentially party propaganda. Party officials commanded red song festivals and competitions all over the country. Meanwhile according to the New York Times liberal thinkers see it as problematically portraying party ideology as somehow native and as a potential harbinger of the most destructive aspects of Maoism. None of that critique exists here in the isolated south where everyone from the grounds keepers who live without running water to the lab groups are practicing songs. I really have no idea what to expect. I’m a bit worried about the kids too. People take this very seriously and I’m not sure Eli belting out the Star Spangled banner or Rebecca and Jonathan singing their song about Monkeys and Darth Vader would end well.

The color of the day will be red. When we asked what I ought to wear for my solo viola performance the unanimous vote (command) was modest red dress. I have no such thin here and I’m four inches too tall to purchase anything modest. Someone, I’m not sure who, got the idea that we should have a Dai dress made for me. I’m not sure how the Dai, feel about the communist party but they practice budhism and live and do not speak Chinese as a first language. A Dai grad student took me to her dressmaker to have the frock made. Rebecca chose the most elaborate and expensive model in the store for me. This turned out to be a good thing as the other red fabrics were very thick and had no give—not for me when the temperature will no be lower than 95. I bought red mens flip flops in the market today which Rebecca and her friend think they can cover with beads by tomorrow. In addition to viola performance anxiety it’s possible that I will look like an idiotic white person trying to be ethnic.

On a lighter note, the kids think they need to acquire DS’s. I don’t know what that is but they tell us the ones here are fake so we’ll need to go to Malaysia or Thailand to get one. They are also home schooling Rona, the four year old down the street. They have now taught her to write her name and to recognize numbers. They began Spanish yesterday, which since they don’t speak it and Rona already negotiates English, Thai and Chinese seemed like a bad plan to me. But who can argue with child pedagogues. Eli runs the scribbling class and it has lots of homework.

Monday, June 27, 2011

I'm an Earth Mother

We have an incredibly small carbon footprint here. Our power comes from the dam and goes out all the time anyway. We don’t drive and rarely get in a car more than once every two weeks. The sun powers our wussy shower. I make bread every day, use freshly picked banana leaves to roll sticky rice, and hand pick my eggs. I know which plants to use if the kids get a cut in the forest. The kids use nature as their playground. When they want to climb we find exotic trees, for a slide they use the hills, and for water play they collect rainwater. They play with snails, rubber, geckos, farm dogs, and flowers. They are covered with mud and filth at all times. We live what might be called a simple life.

So, in short, I’ve become an au natural holistic unschooling earth mother in just six weeks….. And yes it’s fun, exciting, challenging, rewarding, frustrating and maddening. But here’s the thing, I’m still convinced that the whole idea of the earth mother in the West is about privilege.

I’ve never trusted the earth mother ideal. I’ll try to avoid the soapbox here, but when my twins were babies I felt hostile to that widely touted notion; merely the mention of the virtues of pregnancy without intervention, the joys of midwives and corresponding evils of Ob-Gyns, and the absolute necessity of exclusive breast-feeding could send me on a tirade. My kids would be dead without ultrasounds, a great high-risk Ob-Gyn, radio-active imaging, formula, etc. Attachment parenting doesn’t work well with two—hard to keep two attached at all times; I tried it!. When you do kangaroo care in the NICU, you still return your kid to an incubator with tubes. I’ve wondered sometimes if it’s defensiveness about my own choices; with two jobs, three kids, two of whom were pretty high maintenance preemies, and one driver in the family we take every convenience we can.

Here we’ve embraced what I hear is called “unschooling,” allowing children to learn through their own life experiences. For example Rebecca and her friend Surya wanted to do a repurposing t-shirts project. This involves mooching fabric scraps from the Dai seamstresses in town, purchasing very cheap shirts, cutting them up and sewing new stuff on them. I said I’d enable the project but nothing more than that. We rode our bikes all the way town (1.5 miles each way must give a PE class a run for its money) They wanted to remake nine shirts, which I said could not cost more than the equivalent of $1.50. This means they had to convert the money (6 Yuen to the dollar). And when it looked like it would cost too much I made them bargain in Chinese. They are tough girls. Little did I know that the hardest part of this project would be group dynamics but that’s another story. The garmets are completely hideous but the girls are proud and creative.

All children have different learning styles and Jonathan has no interest in this, but he’s a wiz with bug and plant identification, has memorized everything he’s read about ancient china, and practicing the violin seems to calm him down. He gets to read for hours and hours enhancing his malapropism repertoire. He wanted to be “reinstated” for snacks he shared (reimbursed) And he informed us that athletic t-shifts are good for those who “assert themselves” by which he meant exert. And through all of this I am very glad that fabulous teachers taught them to read, write, and do basic arithmetic.

As for the simple holistic aspects of our life here, I’m more convinced than ever that it’s one thing to be holistic because you must, and another because you want to and have the cash to support it. In Charlottesville you can have organic produce delivered to your door, a huge fridge to keep your tofu made on the commune or the organic cow you bought, you can go out to dinner in your car when you get tired, and you can send your kids to a leftie crunchy preschool. Here we go to the market on a no speed bike every two days and it’s rarely cooler than 90 even at 8 in the morning. The homegrown tofu often turns out to be rancid. I love the market; I get a kick out of speaking my 40 words of market Chinese, the challenge of experimenting with new produce, and the solo bike ride. But if we don’t go we don’t have anything to eat. We eat no convenience or prepackaged foods. We cook everything on two burners and we cook three home cooked all natural meals a day.

We wash everything by hand and hang our laundry. And consequently all of the women here, and a few of the men (including me and Manuel) have pathological dish pan hands. That means our hands are peppered with infected cuts and rashes. That’s the no potable water problem. Despite the abundance of rubber trees, the actual rubber gloves do just as much damage. And we have it good by local standards. We don’t have many toys, so the kids make play structures out of exotic branches, and they make dye out of flowers. As lovely as all of this seems, it is physically draining and depends on a vigorous mom. I can run a sub-seven-minute mile, but daily life exhausts me and makes me sore. I sleep more than usual. I grew up running cross-country in Virginia. I’m good in heat and don’t sweat much. But I am drenched always drenched here and I sometimes huff and puff as I inch along on my “rashperry thunder.” (The name the kids gave my bike)

We make all of our own medical choices. We live in a town full of unvaccinated kids. Those with any vaccines certainly do not adhere to conventional western vaccination schedule. But those who can afford it get on a plane to make sure their kids get vaccines that affluent folks in the States reject. And I might add kids here regularly die from things we vaccinate for. The privilege of not vaccinating your kids depends on diseases having been eradicated and having enough other people doing so. When I walk by the outdoor clinic and see malnourished kids receiving treatment in very unsterile environments, I am extremely thankful for vaccines.

No medical intervention means we diagnose ourselves and medicate conservatively. One reason we can do this is our education. We learned a lot about medical problems when our twins were sick all the time. We can read a scientific study and see its strengths and flaws. We use a combo of ethnographic research (asking other parents), high-powered web searches, and Manuel’s experiences with self-diagnosing in other tropical climes to solve our problems. We take the mystery cream from the Indonesian neighbor and use our CVS antibiotics and we try really hard not to panic no matter what oozes out.

The success of the holistic earth mother project here depends on basically healthy kids, educated parents, and escape routes. If the kids were behind in school I doubt I’d yank them from it. If Jonathan still had serious developmental delays and sensory issues, I wouldn’t do it for this amount of time; I’d want to make sure he got every bit of high tech support he needed, and the change in routine would have been unbearable for all of us. Medically, there is no way in hell we would have come to a place like this when our twins were small and still immune compromised. And I’m perfectly happy to treat a cut with a plant if we’re in the forest, to lance a boil with sterilized sewing needs, and to give Rebecca amoxicillin for a red throat when we decide it’s necessary. But if we sensed a serious problem we grab the first flight out, and if we had to we would beg money from all the grandparents, uncles etc.. and spend every penny we needed to get out quickly and get the absolute best money could buy until we could leave including bribes etc… So it is a privilege to live this holistic life. And in many ways we are all relishing it. At it’s best it’s a fascinating and fun adventure. But we will happily and shamelessly return to public school, regular visits to the pediatrician, craft supplies from Michaels, frozen waffles, pizza delivery, and a spa treatment for my hands and feet.

Saturday, June 25, 2011


First it’s clear that all white people here look alike here. Our six-foot tall waspy bald neighbor took his half Malaysian daughters to buy bikes the other day. When they asked how much the bikes cost the bikeguy said “the same as last time.” Chuck had no clue what he was talking about until the bike man said “you know when you were here with your twins….”

The real excitement of the weekend was biblical flood/fire combo that resulted from the delights of Chinese construction. To repeat the cliché; they export the good stuff…
Super dad was frying up French fries when I heard a huge unidentifiable noise and then Manuel screaming. He held the water main valve shut while I called someone who spoke Chinese who would then call the maintenance people and hopefully send someone over pronto. While holding the valve shut and thus allowing the kitchen to fill with only 1.5 inches of water Manuel forgot about the French fries which caused an oil fire and a nice flaming oil gliding across the wet floor. After the fire I went to get the Dutch guy next door who located the water main under a humongous concrete brick but was unable to move it, even with my brawny assistance. So I took over the water main holding job, and my studly husband lifted the brick while the Dutch dude used his vast cultural experience with stopping floods and turned the water off. And low and behold in the dirt hole sat a frog, which combined with the screaming, and running out of the house attracted the whole neighborhood—well everyone but the fix-it guys. Finally a rather small old guy pulled up on a little motorcycle with a single wrench. This gave me no confidence at all; I wanted a fire truck, a utility truck and a shop-vac…. A few other guys eventually joined him, with a bottle of oil and a valve and the whole thing was spic and span an hour later. The hair on Manuel’s arm was the only real casualty. We tried to order brick oven pizza delivery but no dice… After it was all over our neighbors all said “oh yea that happens to all the houses, they’ve had to replace a bunch of floors.” The theory is that the valves are too weak for the water pressure, which given that the shower is but a trickle seems odd, but whatever…. I watched three episodes of Friday Night Lights to recover.

The seven western kids in the compound meanwhile befriended two Chinese girls who live up the hill on a farm. They first discovered their dogs and started their own version of PETA. The western kids are convinced that the dogs are abused and don’t have long to live and asked us to buy raw meat for them in the market. “those poor dogs eat rice….” Somehow they got over cross cultural differences about dogs and brought the girls to play on their landslide; a big hill which they climb up and slide down so that they can get covered in nasty dirt. When the temperature exceeded 100 degrease they brought the kids into the house and Manuel smartly hightailed it out of here on a vespa. I found the kids talking through Google translator. It was quite brilliant actually. Rebecca typed a question in English and hit translate and then the other little girl typed an answer in Chinese and hit translate.

We’re all still recovering from last night’s biblical events and have noted that we’ve encountered so far seven of the ten Passover plagues; including hail, boils, locusts, pestilence, frogs, blood, and darkness. To celebrate avoiding the other three we went out to dinner in town and walked home in the sultry sticky evening. And may I say that after an evening in town and a 40 minute walk with three kids, there is nothing so fabulous as air conditioning, the smell of freshly baked cheese bread, and a nice toilet!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Shrooms and Tunes

We are constantly told that Chinese students work all the time and that they work much harder than American graduate students. The institution carefully guards the “work day”, excluding of course the two-hour nap break after lunch break. Maybe not…. I’m pleased to say that some things are “universal” Manuel popped into the student office and found one student on Facebook, one editing an art magazine, and one ordering something that was not science related online. These facebook-reading students turn out to be great source of cultural information. The kids keep asking, as they shout out tunes from Fiddler on the Roof and Debbie Friedman’s greatest hits if anyone here knows about Jews. I assumed no But according to the students; a very popular Chinese sit-com ay features a Jewish Doctor who, like many Chinese people, suffers from lactose intolerance. The show thus consists mostly of fart jokes. This works for the kids who like nothing better than to talk about farts and butts.

In other news our house is getting some necessary upgrades. We hear an “oven is coming.” We haven’t seen it yet. But everyone is talking about it. We did, however, get a door put in between our house and garage. The house comes rather incongruously with a garage. No one has a car here, and no one drives. The big door for the car on the garage front is wired shut, and the garage just opened into the house like an extra room. This means that if someone did bust through the big door and put a car in it, everyone would die of carbon monoxide poisoning. Now we don’t have to worry dying at the hands of Eli’s fleet of trucks that live in the garage.

And just in case things were not weird enough, we had an interesting drop-by during dinner. We had just sat down to eat delicious mushrooms. After rain storms Dai women gather them from the forest and sell them in the market. We used a little of our carefully guarded butter and sautéed them up and they were, indeed, amazing; like no mushrooms I’ve had before. Manuel explained that they were of the genus Lactarius and quite similar to L. volemus, which is found in Charlottesville. The boys actively ignored him, and Rebecca asked at the end if jews and Chinese could eat it without farting.

In the middle of his mushroom monologue, our neighbor popped over to ask if I would play a Chinese folk song at the garden’s celebration of the 90th anniversary of the communist party. The “Foreigners” are also all supposed to sing a song. This will be a gesture of goodwill, and my viola playing will be the centerpiece. Luckily I just started giving a Chinese graduate student violin lessons last week and she taught me some Chinese tunes so I’ve already re-familiarized myself with the pentatonic scale. Exactly what tune I'm playing is still up in the air.

In other food news we finally got the new breadmaker paddle back via a hand delivery. Yesterday we tried it and got a mess of yucky paste. Note to self—do not use dumpling flour to make bread. Today it worked, and I had a bit of a baking binge; oatmeal bread, yeasted corn bread, and chocolate cake. I stuck the kids in front of Peter Pan, gave them each a piece of chocolate cake and took a nap. I was exhausted from taking seven of them to the purple playground and then from offering careful suggestions to the musical they are writing. It’s called “Warrior Idol” and involves Warrior Cats in a cat version of American Idol. (If you haven’t read the Warrior series; do not….) Jonathan is supposed to sing “If I were a rich man.” Despite the fact that he orchestrated the “Barbie recreation center” which involved him brushing Barbie’s hair and directing the others to do the same, he seems to be their best option for patriarchal authority.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Potao Jam

The Kids proclaimed that they want to come back here every summer. But they’d also like a week in England. In particular “We want to go to Redding so we can see the cast of the wingless bronzed eagle that they had in the roman times. It’s not the real one but it will probably have something like SPQR.” They’ve also spent a lot of time this week writing “acoustic” poems by which they men acrostic poems. They asked if when we get back I can bring them to UVa and get them published. Apparently they have not been following goings on at the VQR.

On Saturday we went to the big city for supplies; mostly food and roller blades. We went to a new super market, which had a better selection of westernish food. We got a giant box of frozen tilapia filets so we don’t have to deal with the live ones. Everyone else in the compound bought them too. We fried it in dumplng flour for the kids and stir fried it in a mystery Dai spice pack for us—yum. We also procured eighteen containers of yogurt. I learned last night from a student that Eli has literally been sucking the town dry of yogurt. Every time the students go to buy it; it’s all gone. And for a major coup they had little tiny bags of m and m’s (about 6 per bag) But this allows us to return to the “you get one m and m for every new food you try.” Jonathan drank a smoothie made with Yogurt and Mango—truly radical for him. We visited the croc store (called “Coqui”, which prompted Manuel to give the children a lecture on Puerto Rican frogs. Sometimes the whole biology thing is a mixed blessing) where the kids got to custom design their own crocs with special little widgets. Our feet are definitely not scaled to china. Rebecca got an adult size. I looked in many market shops for flip flops. When I stuck out my feet and my shoes everyone pretty much smiled, laughed, and shook their heads. The croc store had one pair for my gargantuan feet!

The hour long drive actually took 90 minutes because of a “Big Potato.” The Chinese word for V.I.P. is translates literally as big potato. We noticed an impressive police presence in the garden and on the way out of town and figured out that the head of the Chinese Academy was on his way to the garden for a visit. He qualifies here as a very big potato—complete with motorcade etc. It’s sort of like having the head of NSF and the NEH ride around with a full Secret Service Detail and police escort. The security involved simply closing the major highway through Banna. The kids were completely fascinated. As the potato got closer, the human traffic lights started to gear up. Jonathan wanted to know if they had “bronze fingers” by which I think he meant “brass knuckles.” They actually merely had ceremonial white gloves much to the disappointment of the boys. We heard that when the potatoes entered the special lunch the entire room got up, clapped and did a little bow. For at least one of our neighbors this served as one of those “wow we really do live in a dictatorship” moments.

We attempted this weekend to find out a bit about the “pharmacy” When we first arrived, and I heard the word pharmacy I imagined a Chinese CVS with cosmetics, advil, and herbs to cure all of my jungle induced aesthetic problems. Nope. The pharmacy is actually a huge pharmaceutical company that makes a lot of money producing drugs from plants in the Garden. We never see anyone go in or out, and no one knows exactly what they do in there. The building is screamingly modern with reflective windows so you can’t see in. I think I’ve been reading too many thrillers set in China and too many books and articles about the treatment of girls working in factories. But I have visions of 1000 young girls stuck inside producing toxic things and occasionally covering up for a murder. In the realm of “reality” it seems that they produce a very popular medicine in China called “Dragon Blood” that fights cancers, bacterial infections, and erectile dysfunction.

In our continued adventures and experiments with food, I had two successes this weekend. The green things that we thought were green peanuts were actually whole green mung beans. I boiled them with garlic and salt, and other than being a little over cooked they were super yum, and thing 1 and 3 scarfed them up. Thanks to the earth mother website my sister sent me I learned how to make dulce du leche. (I can’t believe I’m reading that site) Basically you stick a can of condensed milk in a pot of boiling water for two hours. It’s super yummy with pretzels or apples dipped in it. It also works with peanut butter on whole wheat Tibetan flat bread. Manuel has been experimenting with different varieties of mangoes. He decided that today’s was too good to be shared with the children.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Missed the Boat

When I go back to my regular life in the fall, I will teach the Introduction to Music Study for Graduate Students. On sweltering tropical afternoons while seven kids play on the bamboo back porch, I’ve been perusing articles from previous years of teaching and checking out recent journal issues. This I can do while occasionally saying “yes, you are totally tougher than a droid; no, you may not make paint out of flowers and turn the porch floor into a mural, of course that paint is toxic; it’s made in china, do not kick your brother.”

Getting ready for the graduate class involves a literature survey ranging from 19th century musicological texts to the New York Times and recent cultural theory. This time I’m coming to the sad realization that as a professional music scholar I missed the boat. A hundred year ago I could have donned a fetching straw hat and called the whole adventure anthropology or comparative musicology. And if I were slightly older or slightly younger I would have the proper vocabulary and scholarly comportment to take sound bites, turn them into aural moments of global tourism, and get a publication out of them. If either of those approaches seemed appropriate, I could write up a monograph and a few articles, put them on my annual report, and earn either a promotion or a $200 merit raise.

The graduate class always starts with Guido Adler—a father of musicology. I’ve always loved the 1885 chart delineating the details of systematic musicology. His version of ethnomusicology attended to “folksongs of the various peoples of the earth” by which he meant “non-western” or “exotic.” A comparative scholar following his model would have loved this weeks graduation ceremony. The students planted a tree—biologist’s equivalent of Jews virtually planting trees in Israel. Each participant then dumped a shovel full of dirt on the tree—much like the Jewish funeral. Moving out of the garden I would no doubt have celebrated bucolic village life and admired the exotic beauty of the local women. Their humming in augmented seconds surely would have stood for an inherent bond with the land. The fact that I can speak neither the local language nor the national language would not have hampered my ability to make aesthetic judgments and gross cultural generalizations. I would have been very bothered by what the tuning which I would have described as “lack of equal temperament” (translation: pitches are different here.) I don’t think the ever-present pentatonic scale would have given me much comfort. But the thirds and fifths that seem to pepper the local music here would have felt nice and triadic at moments. The kids and I would have zipped around transcribing and recording to our hearts content. The resemblance of the Erhu to a violin or cello would have thrilled me; especially when I heard a player zip seamlessly between classical tunes and Dai melodies. I would have tried really hard to name the modulation that allowed that transition and eventually settled on “pivot chord on ‘roids”

The cultural tourism model could be even more fun especially if it was peppered with discussions of cultural transfer. Just today I encountered incipets for two such articles. The first would be titled Traditional Dai Music and the Modern Machine. I would begin with the traditional ethnographic anecdote and note that while I was firing up my ipod to go for my morning jungle run, I was almost run over by a huge construction vehicle with a roller. The driver appeared to be not more than twelve and had music blaring. From what I can gather from my amateur ethnography and internet research, the tune was a traditional Dai Buddhist chant. The dissonances between small boy, driving large machine, blasting Buddhist ritualistic sounds took my breath away. The fact that my ipod shuffled to man-eater just as I started running only made the soundscape wackier and added that enticing note of dissonance. The article would stop there as I cranked up the volume on my ipod and tuned out the Buddhist chant, street sweepers, loud tropical birds, and buzzing motorcyles.

The second sound bite from today could fall under the rubric of “musical ecologies.” Today I took seven kids to the “exotic” or “ethnic” plant garden. (It depends on which sign you read; the translations are different) We moved around amidst packs of Chinese tourists led by garden tour guides--Dai women wearing traditional Dai clothing. The main attractions are the little shop of horros plant that grabs your finger when you touch it and the grass that dances if you sing to it. Yes really you can sing to the grass. We learned that it does not respond to non-melodic singing or to children pretending to be opera singers. It’s a music 101 student style plant—to count as singing it must have a melody…. From this I could of course pontificate on the inherent musicality of the universe (a-la-Ficino). Even the plants respond to the magic of song… Or I could do the cultural tourism route and describe the different musical activities that the poor plant must endure on a given Friday morning. It seems to prefer high voices. The cultural tourism approach to the plant would have to center on the women singing traditional Dai melodies in a distance, catching the ears of western children and chinese tourists alike; plucking ritual song out of its context and marketing it for eco-tourists. They sang to one set of plants while a china pipa and flute duo sounded; the overplayed Rachmaninoff Vocalise, mixing unmistakably western classical tunes with quintessentially Chinese timbres creating a live sonic pastiche….. And just to make sure that everyone played their musical roles the only song that all seven kids I had with me knew was Do Re Me. And yes they did blast it out and successfully got the plants to do a jig—apparently the ethnic and exotic plants do respond to the diatonic scale. And again the sight and sound of seven kids representing four different ethnicities matching pitch in a song that essential serenades tonal harmony while talking to plants in rural china is certainly worth a caption. This turned out to be their musical highpoint as they then spent a ridiculous amount of time making up a song about various gruesome ways to die that featured crucifixion, live burial, venomous snake attack, and other lovely things.

Sadly thought I missed the musicological boat on comparative musicology when you don’t speak the language and on cultural tourism. So for now I’ll stick to the mommy blog and return to Castrati in the fall.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Not that zen....

Craving Efficiency
OK I admit it the whole inefficiency thing is getting on my nerves. I’m trying really hard to be zen and use my ashtanga yoga breathing to simply go with the flow. However, it just seems ridiculous to EMPTY the pool every three days. This is not a small pool; at it’s longest point it’s a nice 25m. We are in a Chinese Academy of Sciences facility; can these people not use some chlorine? And I admire the fact that the architects designed the houses here to model Dai homes which are open, made of bamboo and raised a few feet above the ground to allow for cows and chickens to reside beneath. But they might have considered the fact that in the tropics wood swells, and if you provide no space between the joints it buckles. The kids have a fascinating little mountain growing out of the floor in their bedroom… The other cute house detail involves the master bedroom suite; which Eli now occupies. He has Internet, a big bed, a patio, a little desk, and a large rattan armoire. He does not however have a mattress—just a box spring. That works for him; not us.

My favorite little bits of local news involve the bank and the doctor. We have a bank account with The Agricultural Bank of China. This seemed fine and dandy except that they are currently tearing down the bank in town; no bank = no cash. This is a total cash economy. So we sent our friends to the big city with our bankcard and our secret passcode. (turned out the card didn’t work anyway so they lent us a big wad of cash) As for the doctor we were told that there would be a doctor on the premises. Well it turns out she paid one visit to her husband and declared his house so messy as to be completely uninhabitable and high tailed it for the capital of Yunnan—a one hour plane ride away. Our pediatrician thankfully partakes in e-medicine.

Rebecca, meanwhile, turns out to be the most acclimated of all of us. She strutted her stuff last night. Yesterday was graduation here and the original plan was for all of us to attend a banquet, however, the general consensus was that it would be loud, require good behavior from the kids, and have nothing they would eat. By the time we decided to pass on the banquet I had gotten my head around no cooking or cleaning and was feeling cooked out from the fabulous pizza quesadillas we had for lunch. So we decided to go into town and try a new restaurant that the students all love. Rebecca actually knew where it was. We were all a little dubious when we sat down and realized that it didn’t have even a Chinese menu and the table next to us had at least a dozen beer bottles underneath it and some very drunk guys. But we were led into the kitchen, which, among other things included a tree trunk and machete as cutting board and paring knife. We pointed at food we wanted and then they cooked it up. The local food here is extremely spicy even by Chinese standards, so Manuel pointed at the hot peppers and said no. And I repeatedly said not too spicy in Chinese. (I think that’s what I said) We somehow ordered about seven dishes, way too many but the whole extravaganza including two large beers was only eleven bucks. We all (except Jonathan) liked what we think were green peanuts. They were cooked with garlic and not much else. The mashed potatoes with scallions were also pretty stunning and the kids snarfed them up. Somehow, our request about lack of spicieness did not make it to our greens. They had so much bite that I couldn’t eat them. We think it was supposed to be BYOB because when we asked for a beer the woman who owned the restaurant ran next door and bought two. Rebecca took me to a “convenience store” to buy water bottles for the kids. At the end of the meal she went and got a check and translated the price for her father, who looked shocked at her abilities. She then led us to a “coffee shop” where she had heard they had real ice cream. I thought the ice cream sucked, but the kids liked it. The coffee was actually quite good (ML, who has been sampling coffee in Yunnan and Beijing pronounced the best so far). I noticed one outlet that's about seven feet off the ground and has a fan plugged into it. Jonathan said, "hey you could bring your lap top here and sit around like you do in Charlottesville...." We’ll see…. The big kids finished the evening with a night time nature walk led by someone from the Garden. Eli and I had our own nature walk which involved walking home (a good 1.5 miles), failing to catch fire flies, and at least 30 minutes of continuous verbage about bobofet and droid soldiers.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

You know you've been in China a month.....

We’ve been in China just over a month. This means away from Charlottesville. Musicology has moved for a few months to the realm of hobby, the occasional copy edits, a new fascination with early modern Chinese European encounters, and enjoying Craig Monson’s fabulous book on my kindle not withstanding. (Don’t tell the dean). I’ve noticed a few changes in all of our behaviors and attitudes, which are listed below.

1.My pathologically cautious daughter regularly hitches a ride on the back of a vespa with one mom and three other kids and zips her little green bike up and down hills. My son who never played with playdoh, couldn’t stand wet clothes for 30 seconds, and refused to get his hands dirty runs around in torrential tropical rain and makes mud soup. (OT should have brought him to jungle)

2. When I see a spider the size of my fist I don’t squeal. I kill it with a wok or a bug zapper. This provides delicious pleasure.

3 When my four year old slips in the mud on the way to the market, I take his shirt off let him walk around in the tropical sun for a while without sunblock then buy him a new shirt. I bargain the t-shirt guy down to $2 because $3 for a Thomas the Tank T-shirt with a genuine puffy train seems obscene. Speaking of prices 50 cents seems like way too much money for six ears of the sweetest most delicious corn ever.

4. It seems easier to eat noodles with chopsticks than a fork.

5. I no longer go through a container of hand sanitizer a day; embrace the dirt…

6. The four year old’s battle noises all sound like Chinese and you’re told that in fact he says Chinese words—dog, cheeta, juice, banana. Apparently the ipad matching Chinese game works.

7. It seems normal for kids I’ve only known a few weeks to call me auntie. And after not riding a bike for almost 10 years I put one of those kids on the mousetrap on the back of my bike and let it rip.

8. I listened to Dave Mathews while running. I liked DMB as much as anyone in my cohort. But then I moved to cville where he is second only to Thomas Jefferson and every spot he walked is sacred. I’m enough of a child of 60’s liberals to distrust any such icon and stopped listening to him. He’s back.

9. Checking the local news involves a complicated calculus of Chinese English language propaganda, New York Times, CNN. Often finding news of things that happened anywhere near where we are goes through a news service in the Netherlands which seems still to have active and uncensored interests in Indonesia and thus the rest of the region.

10. I lie in the bathtub fantasizing about eggo waffles, watching TV on a big screen, and ordering groceries on line. And we all did a happy dance when we heard that the director of the Research Institute had approved an oven for our house. (oven means toaster) We got a little less happy when we learned that said toaster will take a while to arrive. To acquire it, Manuel will first have to thank the director and the guy who will buy it. Then they will send someone to buy it. And then he will have to thank him again. And then maybe I’ll get my toaster.

11. I can say knock it off in three Asian languages. Thai sounds best.

12. Thanks to a twelve-hour time difference between here and the east coast and an obsessive use of Facebook and email for social contact I can tell you when most of my friends wake up and go to sleep.

13. Making coffee is a multistep art involving a ten-gallon water tank and a special pot. Westerners share it and tricks for acquiring it in ways that make it sound like a black-market item.

14. The kids and I can use Chinese words. (no we do not speak it)

15. We eat rambotan and mangosteen for snack—two things I’d never heard of before we arrived. Other favorites are corn on the cob and dim sum buns reheated in a steamer, Tibetan flat bread, and disgusting strawberry Oreos.

16. Goals for the summer are not book chapters and articles but rather not killing the spawn.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Home with Cheese and Chocolate

When we are home I don’t mind Manuel going away for a few days; in fact every so often I like it. The kids and I have special little things we do. And I generally put them to bed as close to 7 as possible and treat myself to chyc flicks and other delicacies. That is not the case in China. The act of having to fill the coffee pot with potable water from a slow drip 10 gallon jug made me totally crazy. When I got the news that Manuel would be hours and perhaps a day late it just about pushed me over the edge; the edge included so many hours of computer games for the kids that they must have lost brain cells and lots of cursing from me.

He did make it back from Beijing after an epic journey which included sitting on the runway in Beijing for nearly 5 hours. Apparently, the airport witnessed hundreds of flight delays yesterday thanks to torrential downpours in Guizhou and Hunnan. Once again the dissonance of a globalization style consequence—the delay of national and international flights—and the local consequences is gritty. My ire came from my husband’s flight delays after an international science conference and a trip to the Western grocery store. And, I used my newfound computer skills combined with a historians toolbox to figure out exactly what went on where. But thousands of people died and suffered serious injury because they lived in poorly constructed buildings, ran out of potable water, and simply cold not get shelter from the rain, wind and lightening. And they probably had no idea why and certainly did not have internet weather radars to feed obsessions.

These gravity of the rain situation remained unknown to us until the flight delays. It wasn’t quite dramatic enough to make the New York Times or CNN. And while I dutifully check the English Language Chinese news every couple of days it goes to great lengths to block anything at all unseemly or related to death from natural disasters. This angle of censorship seems especially ironic. At the risk of seeming trite when you reside in the part of China that is developing or rural the immensely destructive power of nature and the fragility of human bodies sounds loud and clear. Late afternoon heat without ac literally stifles the breath, and the noise of torrential rain pours in bamboo houses or on those with tin roofs deafens. Meat comes with blood, guts, feathers and every other part that reminds you that dinner came from someone breaking the neck of your chicken. And the sale of gobs of blood makes this even clearer. The town doctors office resides in an open air room so severe illness and even death vigils occur in public spaces. Children get antibiotics through IV’s—as in they can be seen walking down the street with an IV pole.

Manuel did make it back quite late last night and he came with a suitcase full of Western delicacies; mostly importantly the five chocolate bars which he knew he’d need to gain entry back into the house. With the wild Harvest Tomato Sauce, pita bread, and mozzarella cheese I made pizza in the wok with pita bread with the kids scarfed in three seconds. Apparently the 5lbs of cheddar cheese caused some trouble at Beijing Airport security and involved a security official sniffing it, wrinkling his nose in disgust, and then shaving a slice off and running it though a special bomb-sniffing machine. At the Kunming Airport they were concerned, instead, with parmegiano. Ironically, as I was getting ready to go for my first run since Manuel left the kids asked “aren’t you making us anything for breakfast, pancakes, Tibetan flatbread.” My quick retort was “are kidding me? Daddy took two planes and a bus to buy you corn flakes and shredded wheat. fix your own breakfast. And start thinking about Eggo for when we get home” I also asked them to report my super mom feats to their father, hoping they’d talk about exciting walks in the rainforest or the family project of constructing a play kitchen for Eli out of boxes. Instead they reported that I had made them wear helmets which made them look silly and that I said “look I can’t keep an eye on you with Eli on my butt.” It’s true I said it, and everyone under eleven remembers it. And that sentence had already gone through the parental censorship process.

My favorite report from Beijing involved a text I received from the wife of Manuel’s colleague. It said, “The boys went to a hookah bar.” Admittedly I only know what Hookah is because we have one in Cville at a place that plays great music and serves good salad. And I think someone smoked it in the movie Around the World in Eighty Days. So it seemed weird but not the weirdest thing we’ve encountered here. She then called a few moments later to say that she had been concerned and alarmed. She is Chinese and did not know the word hookah and thought her husband had said Hooker. She knows that western men traveling alone still frequently answer their hotel room doors to find hookers offering their services.

Friday, June 10, 2011


Manuel will come back from Beijing tonight with whole-wheat flour, pretzels, cheese, butter, and various other treats. I feel pretty buff after my four days flying solo here. The first night sucked. At 1:00 am all the circuits blew with a huge noise that jolted us all awake. Getting back to sleep required flipping all the circuits on and then turning on six different ac thermostats. After not much sleep I came downstairs to find my two boys, shirtless, using the Chinese computer to surf the FBI’s most wanted site. “Eli why doesn’t the FBI know that Osama Bin Ladin is dead?” (I’m told this is normal for boys and they will not grow up to be serial killers) I don’t understand why the Chinese Internet sensors allow this list and disallow information about a lightening storm in Malaysia. The plus side of the great firewall is that it acts a bit like parental controls—nothing with sex or the word butt or poop gets through. (this is no laughing matter here as I learned from the New York times that a man in southwest China earned a spot in a labor camp for scatological humor involving a high ranking official.)

I pretended the whole scene of boys looking at violent criminals before breakfast was a hallucination and walked towards the new French press coffee maker where I promptly squired myself in the face during the push-down-the-press part of the process. Luckily, Rebecca had read on the Internet that it’s best to pour the water just before boiling. And for the icing on the cake; while cooking the morning batch of Tibetan Flat bread I noticed a spider the size of my fist attempting to crawl onto the first loaf. I grabbed the giant frying pan (the kind that you can kill an intruder with) and smashed it.

Thursday night I realized that the ten-gallon water jug had to be changed. When I first tried to lift it I completely failed. Rebecca and I rolled it across the entire house and then I tried again. The kids suggested that we all grunt—which we did—and miraculously I lifted it. I then had a shot of some sort of Chinese moonshine (throat burning alcohol), which staved off any muscle aches. The other big buff moment came last when going to the pool depended on me finding the bike with the baby seat on it. Despite having very little distance vision and no depth perception I’ve always been willing to do things like bike, ski, run and roller blade based on the assumption that the only person I’ll hurt if something goes wrong is myself. Putting a kid in the baby seat obviously defies that logic. However, with a temperature of close to 100 degrees and no other way to get to the pool we had no choice. The whole scene looked like a cross between Big Love and Fantasy Island. Three out of four husbands skipped town, this week which left one Dutch guy, four wives and eight kids. Apparently word on the street yesterday was that we were all Indonesian. We figured out how a pool with no chlorine stays in business all summer. Every few days they empty and refill it; yesterday was a refill day. This thrilled Eli as he could now walk across most of the pool.

We all made it there and back in one piece. And I’m not sure me with a back seat driver is any less safe than Rebecca’s favorite mode of transit, which is multiple girls on a vespa. She feels best with one grown up and three girls and has taken to hitching rides rather than wait for the electric bus. There has to be a kind of safety equivalent of willing suspension of disbelieve while we’re here. I can either spend the entire summer worrying about the various ways the children can be killed (venomous snakes, vespas, faulty construction, rotten tofu, tropical disease etc..) or I can just let it rip.

Meanwhile we’re continuing our exploration of the garden and the rainforest. The kids who have grown up here are enjoying teaching our kids the names of various exotic plants, which I’ve never heard of. On one of these tours, the one that led us to a tree where we could sit INSIDE the roots Jonathan scowled in frustration “well we only know the Latin names tell us in Latin”

Oh and if you need to find some protein that a kid who eats only chicken nuggets will eat may I recommend using a dumpling steamer to poaching a chicken breast in with a little salt and Chinese chicken bullion. (do not look at the ingredients because you will puke) Then shred it. And if you have to get the chicken by a kind of weird boob dance you will feel especially proud of yourself about the meal.

Meanwhile Manuel was living it up with foreign scientists. Highlights seemed to be a grad student style tour of multiple Chinese scientific institutes, a musical performance with a contortionist, and smoking hookah. His paper apparently went fine.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Mud and Trafic violations

Manuel left for three days in Beijing today. I will attempt to stay out of trouble. Yesterday’s infraction came in the form of a moving violation for I think speeding through a construction zone going the wrong way on a one-way street. The purple hot rod clearly transforms into a trouble machine when used for early morning market trips. The crime escalated when I didn’t realize that the three cops were actually yelling at me. I assumed that the yelling could not possibly involve me. After all I am merely a petite mother of three ambling along on a no-speed bike to the market. I forgot that I’m far from petite here—in fact I tower over the policemen. And I forgot that the garden has rigid traffic laws for bikers and pedestrians during peak tourist hours. So, they chased me down on their more powerful no-speed bikes, stopped my bike and pointed frantically in the other direction. I smiled and apologized in Chinese and eventually made it to the market where I stocked up on chicken, veggies and steamed buns dim sum style.

The bigger trouble involved mud. On Tuesday it rained all day and I t sent the kids outside to do a water experiment—how long does it take a tropical rain forest to fill up a giant bowl? These are all children of field biologists so they never miss an opportunity for outdoor experiments that are messy and potentially dangerous. In addition to studying the environment the Dad’s share a certain macho “I fight with venomous snakes and go to places without potable water to do my science” attitude. As far as I can tell they were all in Bornoio in the 80’s and at the last collective dinner I tuned out when the talk turned to wild Rhinos.

But I digress. After the water experiment they decided to experiment with the destruction of mud balls. And then when science got boring they started playing cave man in the torrential down pour that came complete with the kind water/mud puddles that were literally up to their shins. I admit that I encouraged the whole thing; bringing them supplies and enjoying some quiet moments with yet another poorly written Chinese murder mystery. Two hours later they were covered literally head to foot in mud and for some bizarre reason had taken to turning the electrical pole into a mud hut and had carefully covered it with mud from the ground to as high as their hands could reach. I next heard someone yelling at them in Chinese. A few minutes later Manuel arrived home to find four children caked in mud apologizing in Chinese, one mother yelling at her kid, one mother cracking up and a third looking completely bewildered. (The bewildered was me and yes I made my kids apologize in Chinese) The next door neighbor informed me that the electric pole is basically live and that the last time someone touched it in the rain they got electrocuted—hence the yelling. The other Mom and the nanny were explaining in multiple languages that this was what kids always did in their villages and it was ok. Manuel began hosing down the kids.

Meanwhile I was feeling terribly guilty for having encouraged this and my guilt magnified as I watched the maintenance guy laboriously carry pink bucket full after pink bucket full of water over to the road to clean it. The kids of course offered to help, which seemed like it could only make things worse. The downside of living in the middle of a tourist garden is that even though we inhabit the so-called private/staff area, an aesthetic of the pristine presides. So every morning the garden is full of people sweeping the streets and after every rain--storm—every day as it is the rainy season—they wash the roadThis despite the fact that no one bothers to ground the live wires in the electrical poles, clear the weeds that are taking over the road, fix the wireless in the lab, remove the piles of knocked down buildings etc…. Somehow the incident also seems oddly exemplary of the clash in especially rural areas of China between hyper capitalist productivity and the imperative to keep everyone employed. And it speaks to the clash of educational classes. Here are men and women, mostly Dai and mostly past middle age, using hand made bamboo brooms to sweep the street that runs through a biopharmaceutical lab and a flagship research station of the Chinese Academy of Science.

So far today I have stayed out of trouble. I also forbade the boys to lay any violent computer games, hoping that this will keep their fraternal smacking and jabbing to a minimum. This did not go as well as I hoped. They immediately a dress-up characters site and wanted to know if it was ok to dress Jesus Christ on the cross in star wars costumes. I said no way, as it seemed like bad juju.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Food for Thought

If I were a different kind of writer and a different kind of Mom I could turn this into into a cool food blog about feeding American kids in a place where what you’ve been confidentially told is baking powder actually turns out to be lye and where the spices look and smell like narcotics. It’s also a place where every recipe anyone gives you resembles the instructions my grandmother once gave me for making Chicken Soup. “put a chicken in a pot, toss some onions and carrots in the pot and say a barucha.” The blog would include snap shots of me on daily bike rides on a pimped out no speed purple bike to the grocery store or market. It would also include scrumptious pictures of elegant Reeces sticky rice balls and an artful shot of the fish heads that came off of the tilapia Manuel fried up the other night. That would be the tilapia whom I fished out of the water, looked in the eye, and said “ok buddy you are dinner.” He was fried in batter made with eggs that had cracked on the way home when my egg carton was confiscated by the supermarket. We thought it was a brilliant idea to bring our own egg carton. Unfortunately, I stupidly put the eggs in it before I purchased them, which prompted three people to yell at me, take my cartoon, and hand me ten eggs in a plastic bag.

A food blog would also have a fine series of photos dedicated to globalization and product placement that would show various products in containers that mimic the American counterpart [my personal favorites are the Oreos—in a little carton that looks like an Oreo-stuffed with blueberry and strawberry centers]. However, I generally look sweaty and confused on the bike, my rice balls and other treats look like Eli made them in Preschool, the whole fish escapade left even a committed biologist like Manuel a little quesy, and I can’t possibly capture the nasty plastic scrumptiousness of the multicolored oreos, so no pics. Bonnie-the-FoodBlogger would then return to Charlottesville anxious to be an EarthMother and ready to explain the virtues of low-tech food prep. While food prep here is an interesting experiment and provides infinite lessons in mathematics and fine motor skills for me and my family, the second we get back to Charlottesville I will embrace the fabulous Retail Relay delivery service where I can purchase already-made bread, a full gallon of milk, very dead (& filleted) fish, and eggs that come in a carton. They can expect a several orders a day from me, which will include every possible convenience item. I’m seriously fantasizing about grocery delivery, ovens, microwaves, and take out. Heck, I’d settle for a fridge that was not sized based on the One-Child Policy.

Today’s lunch was a feat. I actually spent an entire hour preparing quesadillas from scratch. Thanks to Kristen for the Tortilla idea. I first had to go get a vat of Baking Soda from Summi, who has a FIVE-pound container of it. Apparently that’s the only quantity you can buy it in here. Then I found a recipe, transferred it to my ipad and hit the kitchen. The kids had, fortunately, gone next door for their daily infusion of screen time because the recipe is alarmingly similar to play doh and they would have no doubt wanted to add food coloring and play with it. I fried them (quesadillas, not the spawn) up in the wok and then topped them with tiny pieces of the cheddar cheese that was specially flown in. (that would be the cheese that our British neighbor picked up on his way home from Japan when he stopped in Kunming. Cheese is, indeed, a plane flight away). The kids then asked if we could have this every day for lunch. And it’s the happiest Jonathan has been about lunch since we got here.

The kids are for the most part doing pretty well with the food considering that almost nothing is familiar. Of the ex-pat kids here they are the only ones with two American parents who have grown up entirely in the West. That means they are the only ones who are not comfortable with rice for breakfast and very hot chili sauce as garnish. And they are the only ones whose mother did not know what to do with a banana leaf until last week and is afraid of the meat section. Jonathan is our weak link of the food thing though even he is doing better than I might have expected. The saving grace is that he adapted very easily to the boxed milk. Those who know our family well and have any recollection of the first four years of Jonathan and Rebecca’s life will recall that I’m talking about feeding a kid who had diagnosed feeding problems, went to a feeding therapist, and was chronically puny. His current violin teacher, the infamous Jomamma, is one of the few non-family members who had the patience to spend forty-five minutes feeding him ONE OUNCE of high calorie formula. I’m not going to try to tally up how much time I’ve spent reading about feeding problems, failure to thrive, etc.. And Rebecca whispered to me after dinner the other night, “I told you we should have put him back in feeding therapy before we came here. Let me see what I can do with him.” So this is a test for all of us……

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Live Fish and Dead Chickens

Thankfully, our second trip to the pool was much more successful. We made it there and back without a single tantrum. Rebecca and Jonathan are still painfully slow with the bikes—they walk up and down every single hill and both need to have the pedals lined up in exactly the proper way to start again. The pool was green by the second day—they don’t use chlorine and we’re told that in a few days the algae and muck will make it unswimmable. This time it was full of
Chinese men smoking IN the pool—a nice touch.

This morning I was all set to go for a short run and finish dealing with copyedits on an article when the next-door neighbor, Sumi, appeared with her motor bike wanting to take me to the market to give me a proper introduction and solve some market mysteries. She suggested I drive since I’m taller—this seemed like a bad plan, so I hoped on the back. The garden and the town were quite crowded this morning. Today is the beginning of the dragon boat festival-which is not observed in town since we are in a Dai region but seems none the less to require a huge police presence—they are everywhere. The graduate students are also apparently up to something, but none of the faculty—including the Chinese—know what. No one here seems very clear on what the festival celebrates but it has something to do with the suicide of the 4th century poet Qu Yuan. Festivities involve drinking wine, racing dragon boats, and eating sticky rice rolled up in banana leaves.

The market was bustling with Dai families coming in from the countryside and carrying produce, animals, and goods on tricycle pick up trucks and baskets hanging from their shoulders. Sumi was especially excited to show me where to buy chicken breasts and catfish. Jonathan told her he would eat those things and his translucent skinniness is of some concern to the other women in the compound—mothers and nanny’s alike. (given that our kids tower over the other kids here I’m not sure why his particularly skinyyness is such a focus but….) We stopped for delicious dim sum type buns on the way and headed for the chicken lady. I learned that the way to get chicken breasts is to grab your own breasts and kind of shake/massage them and then says the amount of kilos you want. I saw at least six other women do this. Can men even buy these? The next stop was fish, where I was told to stay away from the dead fish and pick the live ones. Admittedly, when when one of the live ones leapt out of the water and touched me I squealed. We picked two swimming fish and the fish lady cleaned them up for us. We also passed live chickens, and dead chickens complete with feathers etc… That’s not for me…. She showed me which vendor to get rice and flour from, explaining that the ones with bins closer to the ground are problematic because the dogs pee in them. The various cooking instructions were themselves an exercise in multiple translations since I was getting them from an Indonesian woman living in a Dai area of China. I also learned that the green and spinach leafy stuff is actually spinach and the giant blocks of red/brown stuff is blood—we didn’t buy that. The rotisserie birds hanging in the market are Peking duck. I was told to buy the one still on the grill—fairly recently alive and it comes chopped up with little sauces. I haven’t opened the bag; I’m thinking it still has head and feet and while I’m now willing to buy but I’m not ready to touch.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Pool Disaster

I just tried to buy myself some time by sending the boys to gather banana leaves. Unfortunately Manuel, always the botanist, decided that they don’t really know what banana leaves look like and there may well be venomous snakes around so they are back. Damn.

Spending time in a developing nation comes with a certain amount of inconvenience, discomfort, frustration, and general malaise. That is part of the challenge and indeed the pleasure—it’s interesting, different, exciting…. And, yes I understand from my recent reading binge on China that the question of developing v. developed is vexed here. By per capita income it is developing, and yet its global power, economy, and influence defies that categorization. China loaned more money than the World Bank last year. That said, we’re in a place where it’s hot as hell, the water is not potable, there is nothing resembling a hospital, there are few paved roads, many homes have no running water, it is impossible to purchase any food without a huge amount of effort, etc… So the upshot is that while this is very exciting and interesting sometimes it’s inconvenient and uncomfortable and the presence of three kids exaggerates that. Kids are not always flexible nor, when push comes to shove, are they all that interested in wrecking their machines. Yesterday was one of those days when I decided that yes, in fact, this whole venture was crazy and that it might make sense to sell the children and spend the rest of the summer on a beach in Laos.

The inauspicious day began by figuring out that the blade for the bread maker had gone on walk about. It was an epic journey to figure out how to make bread in a place where MSG is more common than yeast or flour. The completion of two delicious breads made everyone happy for TWO DAYS. Without the stirrer we can’t make bread, and we have rendered someone else’s machine useless. So the kids and I hightailed it out to lunch at our favorite juice/fried rice/fried egg joint. After drinking mango ice I noted that the fresh tofu we had purchased at the agricultural market had spilled all over everything in my back-pack, me and my head. There was a butterfly on my head and while stopping to fix the tofu situation I squatted in a nice mud pile. Eli was chipper and belting out the star spangled banner calling attention to me squatting and leaking tofu juice. So we came home for an afternoon of bickering. At a certain point news spread through the compound that the pool had water in it so the whole neighborhood (all three families) headed over. This seemed extremely promising on a day where the temperature was close to 100.

Except… first we had to outfit a bike with a baby seat for e and then we had to ride there with Rebecca and Jonathan who just learned to ride a bike last week. It's about 1.5 miles. This involved walking down hills, falling, crying, screaming, etc.. When we arrived I asked if there was a pool bar—no one answered or laughed. Meanwhile we have no goggles, so Jonathan had started tantruming as soon as the word pool was mentioned. We explained that they don't use chlorine here so stinging eyes wouldn’t be a problem. No luck; the kid continued to scream. By the time we got there after the scary bike ride, a search party had been sent out for us. Both big kids acted like they have never been swimming, clung to our legs refused to put their heads in the water. There was no evidence of last year’s swim lessons or swim team. Thing two got out of the pool did a giant burp as if he might puke and declared himself “water sick” and unable to ever go back to the “namby panby wretched Chinese pool ever again as long as I live.” At this pool kids eat their dinner IN THE pool, which seemed pretty exciting to me. As we decided, a few minutes too late obviously, that it was time to leave thing two began a new round of screaming. He could neither ride his bike nor walk home. After reaching a feverish tantruming fit with the entire pool full of well behaved girls—even the local people have only girl children—he hitched a ride. One of our neighbors threw him on her Vespa with her six month old. Despite his objections we left the bike there. I tried to keep up with the Vespa on my NO SPEED purple bike. Manuel meanwhile rode home with Eli in the babyseat and Rebecca riding (and, according to ML, stopping every 20 meters because of some ailment). I understand that Rebecca fell into a three-foot ditch on the way home, but she seemed fine when they arrived. While Manuel ran back to retrieve the abandoned bike I attempted to make mac n cheese with Chinese noodles and no butter. I also fantasied about a beach in Laos and a long sola boat ride down the Mekong River.

So this morning we had yet another discussion of the proverb “nothing ventured nothing gained.” I’m also preparing a home schooling lecture on the excitement of the explorer and began by telling the children they would hear later about Matteo Ricci, Italian Jesuit who hung out in the Forbidden City in the late seventeenth century. I’ve become interested I him for his discussions of Eunuchs. We’re also embarked on a series of discussions about cultural difference. Although the boys failed to find a banana leaf, a random grad student delivered one to my door and the kids are now making shoes with it. Manuel is going to visit the town metal maker to see if he can fashion a stirrer for the bread maker, and we’ll give the pool another whirl tonight. Another day in the jungle…..