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. :)

After the storm...

After every storm is a rainbow, and today I have discovered a big huge shiny rainbow here in Nanjing.

I won’t bore everyone with the gory details of last week’s lows. It’s sufficient to say: Mike was gone on business, and things were rough on the homestead. You can imagine the rest, or, if we are Facebook friends, you read some of it. Or, if you were at the PTA meeting where my child shrieked his way out the door in my arms (because I was the “wrong mommy” and he wanted “two cookies, not one!”), you had the pleasure of living some of it. (The poor child…I totally, completely get where he was coming from, since I was feeling the same way, and we actually had a lovely day once we got home.)

But something very exciting has happened. After many months of trying to find a real Montessori school in Nanjing and giving up entirely, I got a reply to an email I had sent out weeks ago saying, "Yes, there is a Montessori school in's the owner's email." And feeling very, "Yeah, right." about it, I reluctantly scheduled an observation of the class and decided that if nothing else, it was an excuse to leave the house.

But I was delighted with what I found - a tiny gem of a school tucked away in a random apartment building in the quiet Xuanwu District (about 30 minutes from my house). It was Montessori through and through. I tried to not to get too excited about the match lighting/oxygen depletion work or the tea service work (real fire and real hot water! In a preschool classroom! this would never happen in the United States!)

Afterward I emailed the owner to say how much I enjoyed my visit and that I would love to schedule some more observations so I can gain more hands-on classroom experience, as I've been hoping to find a few students to join me in my homeschool. She just wrote back, "We need to meet face to face. We have so much to talk about."

??? Well, okay then.

So it turns out the owner is one of the first AMI (Association Montessori International) teachers trained in Hangzhou, China, and for anyone who cares about such things, that’s kind of a big deal, at least to me. And not just AMI trained, but trained and committed to building a school in Nanjing based on the Montessori philosophy, and a total Montessori geek like me. And she happens to be building that very school as we speak!

And we’re now totally best friends.

Not joking – we hit it off, not just as Montessorians (yes, that’s a word) but as humans! We were hugging at the end of our 2 and a half hour meeting, which I thought would just be a half hour.

And we did talk about a bajillion things, but the bottom line is this: I will, most likely (as long as I can figure out schedules and laws and such), be working as a Real Live Montessori teacher starting in February in her super, duper, Real Live Montessori school where both Milan and Howard can attend (yes! they have an infant program!) and I still get to be with/near them all day. And I will be the school’s English and Music teacher! And all the students and teachers speak Mandarin, so now I actually have a fighting chance at learning the Chinese language and having an immersion experience. And I can learn the ropes of teaching in and running a Montessori school from the ground up. And the owner is just someone who is super excited about life and possibilities, open to ideas, as well as very skillful at her chosen profession and I have so much to learn!! Yay!

I can hardly contain my excitement.

And, this is all happening just in time for me to attend the first-ever AMI Montessori conference in Hangzhou next month and meet all kinds of other Montessorians and social science researchers (one of which I also happen to be) dedicated to promoting Montessori in China. Yay, yay, and triple yay.

And all this is to say, this is a perfect example of how life in China can be summed up:

The highs are higher and the lows are lower.

When you are down, you seem to be teetering dangerously close to buying a one-way ticket home. When you are up, you feel like you will never want to leave.  

And if nothing else, that’s pretty cool as far as life experiences go - anxiety, adrenaline and all. None of this would have ever happened back home. There is no grassroots Montessori movement to get involved in.

And all this is also to say: you NEVER know what life is going to throw at you and how your past experiences can be leveraged in the future. 

Funny Bags and Special Beef

I should have known better than to order the special beef

It was special, all right.  

Since arriving in China I (and my children) have consumed more imported, pre-packaged food from the US than we have in our lifetimes. At least the chemicals in Lay’s and Nestle products feature ingredients approved by the FDA, so while they may not be healthy, I know they aren’t going to kill us. At least not immediately.

Ah, the tradeoffs of living in China.

So, yesterday afternoon we ventured out for a meal that I promised Mike would be exciting and delicious, at a different location of a restaurant at which I'd already eaten and had a fantastic experience. I did not realize just how much my prior pleasant experience could be attributed to dining with a seasoned expat friend until I suffered through this next attempt at eating out. I had been lulled into a false sense of knowing what the heck I was doing, since we apparently made every mistake possible in a Chinese restaurant.

First, we came at a bad time. Despite the restaurant being officially open for business, there is an unspoken rule that after lunch is when all the employees fall asleep at the empty tables instead of serving you. I should have guessed this since the entire city shuts down around the same time, and everyone just stops, drops, and naps wherever they happen to be, even if it is under an overpass. I've seen people sleeping reclined whilst balancing on their parked electric bikes. (Legs on the handlebars, back on the seat, head on whatever cargo they are carrying that day.) 

Due to this bizarre even-while-on-the-clock-siesta, half our food never arrived. Perhaps we were warned, but I'll never know. In defense of the place, at one point a bus girl snuck to my side and whispered incomprehensibly in Mandarin, clasping her hands at her chest apologetically. I wonder if she was saying, "Ma'am. We are all about to go to sleep. So. Uh. Enjoy what we have provided of your meal. I suggest you pay now, or just wait until we wake up?"

The chopsticks were impossibly thin, round, and slippery. Speaking of which, the variety of chopsticks I have encountered here is dizzying. One would think all chopsticks are pretty much the same, and if your U.S. chopstick skills sufficed, you'd fare fine in China. Nope! U.S. chopsticks must be what they give infants here, because I have never experienced more frustration trying to grip my food than with the ones they have here.

The food that did come to the table was unrecognizable as niu rou (beef) or ji rou (chicken). This was clearly my fault. Why, oh, why did I order the “special beef” and “special chicken”. Total rookie mistake. Both were smothered in some kind of spicy sauce to mask the fact that underneath it all, there was something very sinister and wholly un-beef-or-chicken-like going on. Chewy. Very chewy. No grain or texture of actual meat. And very pale. Mike’s guess? It was probably 90% chemicals and soy filler and maaaybe a tiny bit of beef and/or chicken something parts. Yes. Tasted like tofu. But not as good.

So. We have learned some valuable lessons. Don’t try to eat a late lunch. Don't order anything "special." Oh, but perhaps a bright point is that when you find a bug crawling on your plate of scallion pancakes, and you complain about the chingwa you found, they take it off your bill even though what you really said was, “There was frog on my plate!!!”

Okay, crazy meiguoren. Whatever you say.

On that note, I haven’t been the Outraged American™ yet. But the longer I'm here the closer I feel to a full on meltdown. I mean, the other day I did literally scream “Stop pushing me!” directly into the ear of an old woman body checking me in the IKEA lunch line so she wouldn't topple my tray of overcooked Scandinavian (crossing my fingers) fare. She was completely unfazed, glanced over her shoulder as if she heard a mosquito faintly buzzing and continued to body check me with all the might her tiny body could muster, which was a lot. How could she look so frail, yet be so vicious?

But hey, at least I didn’t cry! I don’t think I’ve cried since we got here. I don’t know if it’s because I’m 100% numb and so dehydrated I cannot produce tears or emotions, or if I’m just amazing at rolling with every single Chinese punch and jab that is being thrown at me. I’m guessing it’s a combo of the two.

But I might hit the “three month breakdown” I’ve heard all expats experience, a month and a half early. I'll report back later. But at least I have Dove Chocolate, Magnum bars, and Lay's Salt and Vinegar chips to ease the pain.

What’s driving me bonkers

  • The staring. Not just staring, but for example, if the family is sitting down to eat, people will gather and soundlessly observe us like monkeys in a zoo. I will try to spark conversation in Chinese. Zhe shi shenme mingze? What's your name? More staring. No one understands a word I say. Even though I know I am 100% saying things correctly.
  • That the “please do not disturb” sign on the door of our room is always reinterpreted by housekeeping as “come on in and just ask me if now is a good time to clean the room even though I've clearly stated it is not.” I mean, it’s fine to double-check I suppose, but could be veerrrry awkward when they walk in on the wrong room one day…
  • The driving of motorcycles in the parks where my kids are running around and playing.
  • The parking of cars on the sidewalk where I need to pick up my kid from school.
  • The fact that nothing translates the way it should. I have no idea what anyone is trying to say to me, but apparently I signed up my son for a class called Funny Bags. What happens in Funny Bags is anyone’s guess.
  • The way I cannot read anyone’s emotions. Do you like me? Do you hate me?
  • The way I’m laughed at for no discernable reason. They think I’m cute? Stupid? Amazing? Intimidating? Mysterious?

Aaalllthough! The highlight of my life was possibly when our driver told Mike (not me, mind you!) that I was “Virtuous and capable.” Literally the best compliment I have ever received, in particular because our driver is the most virtuous, capable, and affable person I have ever met. I also kind of like how he didn’t tell me, but essentially complimented Mike on his choice of wife, leaving it up to Mike whether to pass on the word to me.

  • The fact I know enough Mandarin to know people are talking about me, but I don’t know what they are saying. LaoweiForeigner. I’m the only one in sight!!! I know you are talking about me right in front of me! I might start doing funny dances or something, just to keep things interesting.
  • The way every expat from every country besides America speaks like 80 bajillion languages. I attended a choir rehearsal for the local Communist Catholic Church (more on that another time I’m sure), and there were people from Indonesia, Ecuador, Mali, Burundi, Sierra Leone, Uganda, and Angola. And they could just speak whatever language the other one chose first so I felt utterly idiotic, and they all just ended up speaking English for my benefit. On the upside – they all thought I was in college! Yay, I look like I’m in my 20s! Or perhaps they couldn’t imagine why a middle aged stay at home mother living in China would want to join the praise band.

Ah. It sounds like I’m having a terrible time. But I’m really not. It’s just that, “Everything is awesome!” makes for uninteresting, self-congratulatory blog posts about how I'm So Good At Living Abroad! Which, maybe I am, but it's all just a bit much from time to time.

I will be posting a “What I Love About China” post at some point. Today is just not that day.