One of my more memorable days, bumming around Zhonghuamen, playing hooky with the kids.
I never imagined when I landed in China one year ago I would feel like this knowing I cannot go back, at least not any time soon.

For a variety of reasons – we will not be completing our 3 years in China and are moving back…well, now. I’m devastated to be perfectly honest. But the last two months have been…beyond what words can really describe. Intensely scary and unnerving, testing the limits of my sanity and self-worth. It’s important that we come back.

I think some people would be overjoyed to come back because of top-notch medical care and Costco. I don’t really understand why I’m not, despite the fact I know it’s the right thing to do. I don’t think it’s just the exhaustion having sucked my ability to feel.

We made a home and a life in China. I was starting a new career. I was love-hating every single crazy minute there. I was making good friends. I was just learning enough Mandarin to surprise people. And for better or worse, I was reminded often of how incredible it was to be alive. Everything felt more tenuous, dramatic, strange, and even threatening there, and as a result, more precious. Any excursion brought with it the prescience of how different everything really is outside of the limited life I’d always had, yet never knew…and it is disappointing to leave that behind. I liked that knock-me-upside-the-head drama of awareness that living in China brought with it.

This entire year has been a deep-dive into stunning paradox, and it came to a wildly dramatic end being medically escorted from hospital to hospital, across the world, separated from my family, caring for our son alone, petrified and yet extremely thankful he was alive.

Just typing this makes me feel hot, dizzy and scared all over again. I will never forget how that feeling began when I received an email from my pediatrician in Michigan (who I asked for a second opinion on some labs because it looked like diabetes to me, but what did I know, I only Googled this stuff) at 9:57 pm on May 16th that I needed to take Milan to a hospital as soon as possible “to get treatment or he could go into crisis.” Within one hour, I mobilized everyone close to me to help watch my other kids, called Mike to fly home from California, and jumped into a car for the 2+ hour trip for Shanghai (my one and only trip to Shanghai while in China was spending a week in that hospital, leaving only long enough to buy toys to help Milan cope with his treatment.)

Yes, of course we should be home. But I’m so disoriented when it comes to that word now. I have no sense of place or purpose to go with it. I feel like it could be anywhere, doing anything.

And that is truly a gift from China to me, that I believe will last me my whole life. China taught me that I can be happy, alone in a strange 70s era hospital in Hong Kong, or in a two bedroom apartment with 3 kids and none of my belongings. China taught me I can be happy starting over at the very bottom of a new career where I am mopping floors to get experience. I get that I lived like a queen by any standards of the rest of the population of China, so I’m not trying to say I had a monk-like existence of humbled sacrifice…but I had to learn to accept a lot of things.

And I saw things. Heart-stopping things. Things that instantly and forever changed me. Over and over and over. I guess that’s why I want to go back. I feel like I was just beginning to uncover something about humanity, and my own humanity that can only be accessed when you live in another human culture. Like, there is no way to replicate that in the US. Fish in water, you know? Sure, I can on a very surface level continue to enjoy and study Chinese culture, I can go to authentic Chinese restaurants and grocery stores, and enroll my kids in Chinese school on the weekends, and take Chinese lessons, and study about China while I’m in the US, but I would do that only in an effort to keep some kind of lifeline to get me back to China. I feel like I have to get back there…almost like I just left half of myself there and I’m not going to be okay until I'm reunited.

And I think that’s the thing. Yes, China was different. I could go on about how much I loved the food, architecture, and people, and how wild and wacky it all was. But I don’t want to misconstrue and boil down my experiences, and the wonder of living in another culture to some cheap “hey, let me tell you some crazy stories about China” porn. China was different and I will miss China, but perhaps more I will miss the person I was in China. I don’t think she can exist here, and I guess I may have liked her better.

Who knows. Maybe it’s the exhaustion.

My First Mother’s Day in China

I know a lot of people are celebrating Mother’s Day milestones – and I’ll hop on the bandwagon and highlight the fact I am celebrating my first Mother’s Day in China. Solo-mothering, in fact. Mike has a number of very important work and family obligations in the US and I appreciate his being the family ambassador.

Being a mother of three in China, as a foreigner (I don’t really identify with the word expat, more on that some other time, perhaps) is no small task. I’m not even gonna humblebrag about it. It’s just really, really difficult and I’m making it work as best as I can. 

So. I’m going to celebrate some pretty great Mothering in China milestones, and pat myself on the back. And while I know I cannot attribute my kids' success 100% to my and Mike's parenting, (sometimes I think they are great in spite of it!) because I know they are innately wonderful, capable people who are doing so much of this hard work on their own...I feel proud and my efforts have been well worth it.

1. Without purposefully preparing, I recently discovered I can easily pass the HSK 1 Exam of Chinese Language Proficiency. Which, while it is the most basic transactional Chinese…seems like a lot to me. I can read and type (no writing yet) full, simple sentences in Hanzi (Chinese characters) and I have reached a stage where I know just enough vocabulary to fill in a lot of blanks just through context (when people speak simply and slowly enough), which is enormously exciting. The language should essentially "explode" for me now as long as I am diligently practicing, listening, and interacting with native speakers. I’m so happy I have the opportunities to do so! 

How is this related to motherhood? My kids see my efforts, and they copy me, and they learn and try out the language too...it's that simple. Kids do whatever their parents do. (Sadly, this is true of all the not great stuff we do, too.) They are constantly asking me about the phrases I am repeating as I study my flashcards on the way to school (I am not driving!), which sometimes sparks conversations and spin-off sentences they try out at school and with friends. I bought Coco a new Sophia the First book in Mandarin and she said it's the most favorite book I have ever bought her because it's in Mandarin. I mean...come on!

Coco 和 Bonnie 的画画。
Coco and Bonnie's drawing!
2. We recently had to make a very difficult but very clear decision to remove Coco from her previous school. Over the past few weeks I think things have turned out even better than I could have hoped. Coco has transitioned to our lovely bilingual Montessori school beautifully. She is making new friends and even though she sometimes complains that they don't speak much English, she is really putting in a lot of effort to bridge the gaps in other ways, one of which is by using artwork to express herself with her friends - they create a lot of drawings together. I am beyond proud of her. She had to attend one day alone without me and Milan, which gave her some trepidation. But at the end of the day she said proudly, "Mommy! I spoke Chinese to everyone all day! I even spoke to myself in Chinese!"

3. During a conversation about "going home" - Milan exclaimed excitedly, and almost indignantly, "This IS my home!" He thinks of China as home, which is everything I could want as his mother. Today, when speaking with our Chinese teacher, Jun, Milan said, "Jun isn't Chinese...he's American AND Chinese...just like us!" (Because he speaks English.) And while I get that my son might be confusing the nomenclature of language and nationality, to me what is more important is that he is identifying himself as belonging here and with people he meets, not as separate and temporarily withstanding living in a strange place. It’s just incredibly wonderful and comforting as a mom to know your child feels at home in such challenging circumstances.

4. Last week, Howard debuted his first full sentence, which was…in Mandarin! In response to a question asked of him in Mandarin by our ayi (which means "aunt" and is also a job title, as well as the way most children will greet a woman they do not know to be respectful and welcoming), whom I'm pretty sure he loves like a second mother.

“Howard 妈妈在哪儿?” “Howard where is your mom?”
“妈妈在那儿。” “Mama is there!”

So outrageously cute and exciting. Also, his accent is way better than anyone else’s.

5. Even some of the difficulties of living here have been turned into opportunities for humor instead of anger, understanding instead of judgment. This kind of multi-cultural learning is what is most important to me – that my kids learn that they are guests here, and learn to be tolerant of differences, even when it makes them uncomfortable (because I know they are safe). It’s true that people stare at the kids, follow them to take pictures, touch them without asking, laugh at them without sensitivity to how it makes them feel…and it really bothers them, understandably. But we have had many conversations about how to handle these situations, and why what is OK, common, or acceptable in the United States is different than what is OK here, and how to set boundaries without being rude or feeling bad. 

Out of these conversations, I asked the kids to come up with funny ways to interact with people instead of getting mad. Do a dance, meow like a cat...make it fun! Milan in particular dislikes when they squish his cheeks (but come ON, they really are so squishable), so he said, 

“We can do something creepy to make them shiver and fall down.” (??)

“We could get our thumbs wet and stick it out at them and they would scream.” (We are reprimanded constantly by the Grandmas for letting our kids suck their thumbs, not wear a million layers, drink cold water, etc.)

While that's pretty weird, it's also pretty funny.

6. And speaking of Chinese Grandmas and Grandpas...I will never tire of the attention and moral support given to me as a mom of 3 in China. Some people react to seeing me out with the kids like they do for marathon runners about to cross the finish line, lots of people do a double-take, inquiring if all the kids are mine, if the oldest two are twins, give me thumbs up, tell me I'm doing a great job, tell me how lucky I am, smile and chat with the kids, ask how old everyone is, including me! Waitresses will smile and coo and want to cheer up (and even holding and rocking) a fussy baby (so you can enjoy your meal - what??), and never care when your toddler's behavior almost makes them trip in the aisle. The entire culture here celebrates and accommodates children and families. The level of respect for elders and children here is astounding, and makes me feel ashamed of the way children and the elderly are marginalized, disdained, and ignored in the US.  

On Mother's Day, to know my children are happy and thriving in the most challenging situation I have ever been in as a person and by extension, as a mother, is the biggest reward I can have. We are beyond blessed for this opportunity to experience a new culture.  

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.