I'm proud of myself

My journey to China has been a deepening into paradox. Attaining a level of comfort with the total unknown. Feeling that any decision is dramatically wrong, or potentially awesome, simultaneously, is a state to which I have had to completely surrender.

And let me be clear...I'm not being poetic. I think this experience could really break someone who was not willing to bend. I have felt the surface cracking many a time and had to just yield, and it's all turned out fine, so far.

 I will admit, the day a Chinese woman asked me if I was Chinese was gratifying.

So, as I reflect on how I find myself here in China and how it is both so absurd and wonderful all at the same time, I vacillate between feeling that I have lost so much (leaving behind my friends and family, the equity I have put into various career endeavors..singing and teaching voice, and working as a finance professor and researcher) and gained more than I could have ever imagined and have yet to discover.

I’m reminded of the favorite line of a favorite prayer I discovered when my father died, “…an horizon is nothing save the limit of my sight.” (William Penn. I’m told it’s a favorite line to many…) 

And indeed, the horizon I constructed in my mind called My Likely Experiences in China have been almost nothing like reality. And for that, I’m grateful. It has been much more difficult and much more enriching than what the limit of my sight allowed.

Which brings me to where I am now. Almost 9 months. A fitting gestation period worthy of birthing a semblance of a real life here. I am now a Montessori teacher, or at the very least, embarking on my journey to becoming one.

The photo pictured here is me, during my first few days of student teaching at that tiny Montessori school I’ve been talking about. Yes. I now work there. In true Milena fashion, I hound people until they employ me. And in true Milena fashion, I am literally not okay unless I am pursuing some endeavor for which I feel totally unfit and can agonize over constantly. *grins*

This picture is not just a cute scene of me smiling at some kids at a table. For me, it is a moment of triumph. That is me, seated, humbled, as a foreigner, being allowed to work intimately with the future of humanity.

So, I am engaging in the best way I know how with these five beautiful children (there are 12 in the whole class, including Milan), letting them touch my weird hair, and matching their amusement over how I’d never encountered a 豆沙包 before.

Duo sha bao, duo sha bao!!! They cried out…and anyone who has had a small group of enthusiastic children try to tell them something simultaneously will know the joyous bell-ringing of sounds that renders diction incomprehensible and the moment a pure delight, frothing into bubbly laughter.

Show and tell

For show and tell she wanted to take her pink purse.

I hate to admit I cringed a tiny bit at her choice, thinking, Why not the tongue drum? Something more…show and tell-y?

Trying my best to be the interested and supportive mom, “Oh that’s a good idea. Why do you want to take your pink purse?” (Because we are supposed to help the kids think through what they might say before they end up in front of the class in shock.)

“Because I love how it is shiny and sparkles!”

“What else do you want to tell your class about it?”

“I don’t want to tell you.”

Fair enough. I pack up the conversation and focus on the pasta Bolognese we are all enjoying. It is pretty good. I added bacon…because Hormel is a close approximation to pancetta when you live in China. (I know, I know there is pork belly everywhere, but I just don't know if it's the same...)

Later after the kids had read themselves to sleep and Mike went to his office for his nightly hours of meetings with the United States, I actually remembered to pack the pink purse in her bookbag with the umpteen other things I usually forget (I have no idea how anyone expects a tiny child to carry all the things she is supposed to, but she manages somehow) and took a peek inside.

I cringed again. This time at myself for being so judgmental about her choice in the first place.

Inside it was a beautiful collection of little cherished objects that probably no one else would understand why or how they got there or why they are special without a bit of explanation, but I could tell instantly.

The pink crystal rock she picked up on a walk with her Dad close to the time we were leaving Michigan.

A huge collection of hair clips that she absolutely refuses to wear, but apparently keeps them all in this purse because her Nonna gave them to her.

A purple gummy Panda bear that is supposed to go on the ends of some chopsticks Mike and I brought back for her from our first visit to China when she stayed behind.

The shell of a walnut we spent a great deal of time talking about while trying to use the scientific method (which she had just learned about in school) to determine what kind of object it was (a nut), what kind of nut it was (have to open it to find out), how to open it (it was banged on and upon with a wide variety of surfaces and objects until I took the heel of a knife to it while she stood a safe distance), and what it felt and tasted like (freshly shelled nuts taste better).

The purse itself is from her beloved Baki.

To me, it holds important artifacts from the life we left behind. This is not just a pink purse with some sparkle rock and hair clips. And she has just recently started adding things from this new life. The walnut shell! A little rubber Lego piece she found on the ground and wants to return to one of her classmates because he might be missing it! 

This little purse might just be her rock in the storm, and I'm just so glad I kept my mouth shut and did the Supportive Mom thing like all the blogs tell us we should.

And it's all very perfect for show and tell.

China may not be the best place for an anxious perfectionist with trust issues to live

I’m just saying.

Le sigh.

Every time I feel like I have finally got a handle on my anxieties about living here, finding solutions to problems like air pollution, or just getting around the city, some new threat pops up. (I know, I know, the probabilities reveal that the stress will kill me faster than the anything else, but I didn’t say I was rational, now did I?)

Recently there has been a rash of break-ins at another very heavily expat-populated neighborhood. And when this happens, whispers about the Pfrang family of four who were violently murdered by a gang of watermelon knife-wielding thieves in a similar such compound, abound.

It is a terribly sad and graphic story, and unless you have a strong stomach, I advise against clicking to read. 

So, while the likelihood of such a horrific event repeating itself is slim to none, it is this dread risk that humans dredge up rather than tempered reality when considering the possible fates of themselves and their families.

The advice for such events is to not speak to or confront the thieves, certainly not fight back, let them take your stuff, and they will probably just leave you alone. Make sure you leave some cash and easy-score items out that you don’t mind being stolen in plain site so they don’t become agitated and attack you, just grab their spoils and run.

Naturally – I long for America. Where it’s okay to defend yourself against an attack and you’ll enjoy the protection of the law. Where the concept of personal space is generally appreciated. Where the local news tells you things like, “There has been a rash of break-ins at 13 Mile and Rochester Road,” so you can exercise caution in such cases. Or you have access to the actual police blotter! Or where your home alarm systems ring directly to police, and where police are trustworthy (yes, in general they are, despite all the recent news) and respond in a timely manner and speak English! 

Due to the generally decrepit infrastructure and lack of resources for things like staircases and ladders, Chinese people seem much more used to and adept at scaling walls and such, which is a bit worrisome as I hear sometimes the thieves come in through upper windows (when the houses are built vertically and there are 3 or 4 floors, this is unsettling.) Recently, when a worker asked if he could use my kitchen chairs for a repair, I informed him the last worker broke the chair using it for such a purpose and I’d rather he got himself a ladder. I turned my back for a second and he was scaling my window, which was shaking precariously, and he fell backwards, nearly cracking his skull on the stonework behind him, and then climbed right back up. I cannot tell you how many times I have looked out the window and saw some random man on my top-most balcony, the neighbor's roof, or up a ladder, just staring at me. This is China. You get used to such things.

To add to my stress, today also happens to be the eve of my first solo travels in China for a conference in Hangzhou, and this recent abduction and sexual harassment of an expat woman taking a taxi to her hotel is on a constant reel in my mind. The link is also frightening, but the woman lived.

I know most of these fears are not unique to China, they are just part of life. They are part of traveling, but again, irrational brains are not interested in such banal facts. They light up in a panic that requires potato chip and chocolate sedatives to fight.

They also make me wonder, “Where did intrepid Milena go?”

I used to fly to New York by myself for such conferences without a second thought, walking around by myself for hours, attending intimate concerts in the wee hours of the night in neighborhoods with high crime rates because they were trendy and not worrying a bit. Driving to Chicago in the middle of the night and falling asleep on the El the next day waking up at the end of the line somewhere. Staying at two star hotels in Florence by the railroad tracks and wandering around at night looking for food. Honeymooning in Bosnia, where I narrowly missed being abducted by two Bosnian policemen who wanted to “take me to the bank” to pay a bogus traffic fine and leave Mike with our car. Where we wandered the streets at night, dining in totally empty restaurants that just had to be a front for some kind of crime syndicate. I’ve done some really, really stupid stuff in my life, and had some brushes with horrible situations. Le sigh.

I honestly think it’s having kids. Having kids makes you put up this Wall O’Survival where you attempt to thwart any and every potential event, that however small, may threaten the well-being of your children, no matter how indirect.

Well, that’s all I have to report at the moment. Uplifting stuff, no?

Why the glum disposition? I think I’m still in the 3-6 month slump, to be perfectly honest. As my long-time expat friend kept asking me the first few weeks I was here, "Has The Shiny wore off yet?" And I kept wondering what she meant. Now I know. Yes, the shiny has worn off and it’s been a game of two steps forward, 1.8 steps back, just a sluggish crawl towards normalcy, because it's not just fun, games, food, photography, and sight-seeing. It's being a wife and mother of three in China. 

I see the moms at the bus stop and instead of saying hello right away, we just look at each other and heave a simultaneous sigh before we break into some cathartic laughter and chat about the goings-on (like break-ins and the like). It’s nice having these water-cooler community moments, and knowing that others understand where I am right now helps me feel not so crazy.  

Onward I go. I hope to report some exciting things from Hangzhou – I’m attending that Montessori conference I mentioned in my last post. I’m sure I’ll be excited once I get there. :)