Wednesday, July 13, 2011
Every time I talk to someone on the phone they ask what the kids are getting out of this and what I think they will take away from it. In truth, I do not have a clue. In that inevitable way of children, they take everything in stride, and things that still seem exotic and scary to grownups register as nearly normal to them.
Eli has picked up the most Chinese, though he will not use it on command. When I try to get him to perform here it’s not only in an “isn’t my kid cute way” but also a way of saying “yes we are giant white people who do not speak your language or understand your culture, but we really are trying and at least one of us can pronounce things accurately.” His pretend play includes not only Chinese activities in which he frequently becomes a grounds worker or a plumber but also words in Chinese, Thai, and Dai. But I don’t think he understands them as different languages. Obiwan mostly speaks a mash up of these language and spitting noises these days. He can also have a full out conversation with one of his acquaintances Chen Chen in which neither of then understands a word the other is saying; but they do speak with conversational inflections, stop for questions to be answered and giggle at the same time. Since at almost five he still spends much of his time on a different planet, this whole business of jungle living in some ways may seem less weird; he, for example, regularly sends emails to friends, cousins and super heroes and often comes home from the woods bearing gifts of precious gems, wild animals, and high automated rifles.
The big kids also frequent fantasy worlds, but theirs bears a striking resemblance to a Mekong village town. They sweep and mop the porch. They say it’s safe for kids to do that here because no on uses soap anyway. (this is true) Any kind of pretend cooking requires filtered water and dramatic banging on something. All three of them dress their stuffed animals in Dai clothing crafted from scraps mooched from the Dai seamstresses in town. They very casually inform me on walks “watch out mommy that’s an elephant ear; it’s poisonous.” They know exactly where to buy anything they want in town—soda from one supermarket, dim sum buns from the lady in the back of the market, fabric trim next to the spicy noodle shop etc…. Rubber trees, tea plants, banana leaves, coconut trees, and mango trees don’t even bear mention any more; unless they are hungry and want a mango. They can, in other words, identify plants, animals, foods and sounds that I had never even imagined before I came here, and they don’t think it’s unusual.
All three of them enjoy a kind of freedom and independence here that eight and 4 year olds do not enjoy in the United States for practical and cultural reasons. They hike on a footpath through fairly rough forest for 2/3 of a mile to say hi their Chinese friends or play with their dogs, pigs, and chickens. They get on their bikes and cruise around the compound on road that they share with cars, motorcycles, and the occasional lost truck—there is nothing funnier than Eli barrel-assing around corners on his little blue bike with training wheels. And we all ride into town alongside giant dumps trucks full of concrete blocks, which are never strapped down and could crush one of them at any moment. We use the size of these blocks to justify not wearing helmets We leave them alone when we go running; they amble through the market alone buying snacks. While our pool at home reliably comes with chlorine and lifeguards, Rebecca will no longer be able to simply hop on somebody’s Vespa or get on her mini green bike with any family cruising by and take a dip.
Some things simply go over their heads. Thanks to the Communist Party Birthday celebration we discussed communism, but it made no sense to them. When we explained the economic theory, the response was “but there are rich and poor people here.” When I was reading about Chinese artists thrown in prison or sent out for re-education and launched into a discussion of the virtues of free speech, they simply could not fathom a place without it. They, like Mr. Jefferson, seem to “hold these truths to be self evident” And while Yuen feels like play money to me they think that paying 60 qui for a bicycle would be a total rip off. They don’t understand the economic and cultural implications of the fact that everything here is obscenely cheap by American standards.
Mostly I’m struck by the ways that they cannot absorb the tremendous gaps in wealth and modernization. Given that I spent much of my sabbatical free time working with kids in Charlottesville’s most impoverished housing project, I am more than aware that we have tremendous wealth disparities too. But I cannot think of many places in the US where a house with three bathrooms, a.c. with 5 zones, and double-paned glass is only 200m from a house with no indoor plumbing or kitchen. When the kids took me to the farm I was stunned. They noticed that the Chinese kids have two TV’s but failed to register that only one room has electricity. They are jealous of the animals but didn’t notice the toothbrushes neatly put away outside in a cup. And like all privileged Western animal rights advocates, they worry more about the fate of the dogs whom they’ve now diagnosed with ADHD, multiple personality disorder, and “post tragic” syndrome than about kids who will be lucky if they are allowed to finish school. And they traipse down the hill and inform me in passing that they came home because “another elderly gentleman came to drink alcohol with the grandfather.” (It was 10:30 in the morning when they said this and the grandfather is no much older than me)
Though they accept much of the world around themselves, the kids are not by any means enjoying and It’s-a-small-world style complete harmonious bonding with rural China. They find things as frustrating as we do and often express it in ways that we are too politically correct to say, even in our own home. Material differences that affect them make the strongest impression. Food, of course, looms large, and they can give a long list of the indignities of eating in China and of the things that they are miserable without. But they also fully accept and expect sticky rice balls and mangosteins for snacks. They know that the Chinese export the good stuff and make a game of predicting how quickly things will break. They constantly fume at the swimming pool; they know it should have chlorine, be filled on hot days, and staff life guards who yell at people who run, smoke in the pool, throw their lunch trash in the pool, and don’t get out when they hear lightning. They, too, have had multiple skin infections and wash their hands with a kind of vigor I never thought I’d see. And they understand that we get flu shots and take antibiotics, which kids here don’t get to do. The radical differences in music and ambient noise also beg constant attention. Often they talk about sound in a comparative way. “that sounds like queen don’t you think” or “why do they have the same piano on all the radios” (they mean the same inane synthesizer tracks) “The bugs here are 20 times louder than anything at home”
The big kids, like their parent’s, process a lot through reading and information. Both of them speak in a tone I thought was reserved for arrogant male academics when they inform other foreigners about Chinese culture. They can quote facts and stories from various dynasties and frequently reference the Red Guard and Chang Chai Shek. And like the good comparativists that the solipsism of childhood makes them, many of their cultural observations come out in terms they already know. We spoke with Manuel’s student about the problem with Dai men drinking and gambling: Jonathan said. “oh yes in our country the native Americans have that problem especially on reservations.” During a conversation about the vastly inferior schooling in the Dai villages Rebecca said “isn’t that like an achievement gap.” Not to mention the question we got early on “how come all of the Chinese men shave their entire bodies?” And while I have often complained about the horrors of bringing up boys, there may be hope for at least my eldest son. During a discussion of what are by our standards completely regressive domestic arrangements of everyone around us Jonathan said with a smirk “well that works out well for the men but not the ladies. Mommy wouldn’t stand for that.” (And for the record when I say regressive I’m not talking about arrangements of men working outside the home and women working in it) And, despite our failed attempts to explain communism and wealth disparity, they did understand it when we said an important marker of what I think of as the wretched gender politics here is the fact that a country that makes and distributes amazingly zippy cell phones to even the most remote communities and technology superior business accessories (both of which are primarily used by men), they cannot sell any kitchen convenience including a good sponge. Why make women’s lives easier?
As to the question of what they will remember I just don’t know.It is true that Rebecca and Jonathan remember Rome quite well; or at least they claim to. But my scholarly life does not exist in a separate plane from our home life, and anytime they see me preparing a power point presentation for a talk they see places where they played. All of us love to go to Mona Lisa and buy Perugino; not because I think it’s the best chocolate in town but because it’s what we used to bribe 2.5-year-old Rebecca to suck down unsweetened prednisone. They hear me speak Italian on the phone and when they’ll have it I read to them in Italian. And I usually end up in Europe at least once a year and come home with some kind of Italian treat. It’s not in the end that far from their normal world. This is very far away with few flashpoints at home.
In closing I quote from Jonathan, who frequently has long involved conversations with his best friend Kiren during which I sometimes write down his words. I tune out for long discussions of Warriors, which is a completely wretched book series. He has already learned to make things that spin him into tantrums seem interesting or buff to his friends. This is especially true when it comes to food, which challenges all three of them in big ways.
“We have made several observations. The nanny’s all ride pink bikes.”
“I have quite a bit of a diet. There is bread. There is very good cheddar cheese. Jinghong has a restaurant that has good pizza. Their eggs are phenomenal no matter where you go. And then we have some buns in case I start to starve. We found these things that are like Chinese granola bars. So actually I‘m not bad off.” (Jing Hong is an hour away and we’ve been twice)
“we’re stuck in china getting eaten alive.”
“you know our mom played a song for the communist party’s 90th birthday”
“we do have a bug zapper. It looks like a tennis racket”
“There’re two Indonesian slash dutch girls and two Malaysian slash Texan girls and there’s one four year old Thai slash Scottish girl”
“Becca she’s fine she’s sleeping right now though. Sometimes the garden exhausts her”
“Wait let me guess Chile also made a declaration of independence. A lot of countries did”
“I’m on my dad’s computer which just happens to have this funny thing from the new york times” (followed by a complete reading of the NY Times op ed piece of the US’s Facebook page)