Monday, December 31, 2007

Hurricane Kyra

I have a friend, let’s call her, say, “Jennifer.” Now, Jennifer has two twin boys, aged two-and-a-half, and she is constantly regaling me with tales of their mischief and mayhem. Every day she has a new one, like the time the boys woke up from their nap and sneakily upturned both their beds and the gigantic humidifier full of water before discovering that it was far more fun to smear the Costco-sized tub o’ Vaseline on themselves and the walls instead.

The boys work as a team, apparently, and this, as I understand it, is the problem with twins. One two-and-a-half year old boy by himself can do plenty of damage, as I learned when my boys were that age, but two can egg each other on and invent new forms of torment for their mother at twice the pace of a singlet. Let’s just say that every time she tells me one of her stories, I sympathize, then go home and fall to my knees, thanking the Lord that I had the good fortune to space mine more than a few minutes apart.

But then I realized. If you space ‘em, they just learn from each other and split up into various rooms in the house to unleash their inner demons. So, for example, yesterday, while I was cleaning the kitchen, really scrubbing away and feeling quite virtuous about the state of my house, Shay was upstairs upending a box of legos to find the Perfect Lego. Aidan was eating graham crackers with peanut butter on the living room couch, dropping a trail of crumbs over the freshly vacuumed floor. And Kyra – dear, sweet, smiley little Kyra – she found a spare tube of lip gloss and was adding to the glossy finish on the entry way furniture.

When I discovered the mess she’d made, I scolded her smiley self and then went to find some towels to buff the lip gloss off. That’s when she disappeared upstairs, where her dad was taking a shower. I called her to come back downstairs, which she did, and carried on with my pointless cleaning.

A short time later, I heard Bart yelling from upstairs. He sounded… unhappy, to say the least, so I trotted up to see what was wrong. It turns out Kyra had decided during her brief trip upstairs to turn on the faucet in the bathroom, but she’d then neglected to turn it back off. The drain was no match for the water, which quickly filled the sink and spilled onto the counter, into the cabinet and all over the floor. The bathroom had become the bathtub.

At some point during out attempts to mop up the sea that was once our bathroom, Bart muttered “betcha this makes it on your blog.”

And so it has.

I’ve learned several lessons from this latest mishap, so listen up if you want my advice.

First: No matter how dirty your baseboards get, don’t bother to clean them until your kids are in college. You’ll just end up with an even bigger mess.

And second: If you happen to run into Jennifer, and she happens to tell you one of her infamous twin boy horror stories, whatever you do, don’t gloat about the fact that you don’t have twins. What you have could be much, much worse.

On the plus side, at least I don’t have mop upstairs any time soon.

Friday, December 28, 2007

One Little Thing I Keep Forgetting to Mention

The State Dept allots each family a certain number of pounds in their household effects shipment, so when we moved here, we really had to pare down our stuff. We gave away books and toys and everything baby-related. We were ruthless. Kyra’s newborn dresses – donated. Baby swing and seat – donated. Bibs and socks and teeny tiny hats – all went to the Salvation Army, or to friends who were expecting.

But one thing they don’t teach you in Catholic school: God is a funny, funny, guy. He loves a good giggle. And so, my friends, now is as good a time as any to let you all know that we are expecting the arrival of baby girl Gorman – our fourth child – in early May.

Send those nickels our way, as I’m not quite sure how we’ll feed and clothe them all. But that’s where faith comes in, I suppose. First God laughs – then he provides.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Where Does it Hurt?

“I have diarrhea,” the woman next to me said in Chinese, “What’s wrong with you?”

“My teeth hurt,” I complained, before turning to the next woman and inquiring after her health.

“I’m going to throw up,” she said.

“I have allergies,” said the next.

And so on.

This was my most recent language class, in which we learned body parts and basic health terms. Now, theoretically, I can ask a doctor in Chinese “how many times a day should I take this medicine?” or tell the ayi “today I need to go to the dentist.” Note the use of the word “theoretically” here: it’s the most important word in this post to date, with the possible exception of “diarrhea,” which will of course figure prominently in the upcoming paragraphs.

Now, you might be thinking to yourself, “wow, she must really be getting good at Chinese if she can say all of these things already.” And you’d be dead wrong. Because somehow, whenever I put it all together in a sentence, unless it is spoken EXACTLY as written in my Chinese text book, no one understands me. Example: I can say “I do not speak Chinese” (Wo bu shuo hanyu) because the phrase is in my textbook. But today, just trying to make conversation, I said to the checkout lady at the store “you speak English very well.” At least, I thought that’s what I said. But she just gave me dog-ears. Dog-ears is what I call it when I say something in Chinese to a Chinese person and they just cock their head to one side and stare at me, puzzled, the way Casey the dog does when I talk to him. I get a lot of dog-ears here in Beijing. I might as well spend my days talking to Casey. And even when the words come out right, they’re still wrong. Which is why I buttoned up my coat today when leaving a restaurant and said to the waitress “It sure is cold tomorrow!”

But I’m trying. And for some reason, I’ve found that words like diarrhea seem to stick in my head longer than other potentially more useful words. So I ask the bread guy for a loaf of bread every week, and every week I say the same thing: “Wo yao yige mianbao… sliced.” I cannot for the life of me remember the word “sliced,” even though I need to use it every week. But “diarrhea…” I mean, really, how often do you discuss that in polite conversation? But I remembered the word “laduzi” the first time I heard it.

That last day in class was pretty funny. We held the class in someone’s home, and her ayi, who speaks no English, was wandering the house, cleaning. I wonder what she was thinking when she heard our little group of ten repeating, over and over, in broken Chinese, “I have diarrhea.” “I have diarrhea.” “I have diarrhea.” It’s a wonder she didn’t fall over laughing. Just as well. If she had choked on her own laughter, we would have forgotten how to say “quick! She needs to go to the hospital!” We would have just stood over her, helpless, before one of us thought to say “do you have diarrhea?”

And speaking of hospitals… Mingtian Shay xuyao qu yiyuan. Ta xuyao kan ya yi. I think that means “tomorrow Shay needs to go to the hospital. He needs to see the dentist.” But go ahead and get all dog-eared on me, because I could have it totally wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time.

At least I know I’m not alone. I saw a guy in Jenny Lou’s today trying to find matches. He was pantomiming lighting a match, with sound effects and everything. I understood him, but the supermarket employees gave him dog-ears. He eventually gave up and left without his matches. I wanted to follow him out, to tell him I understood. But since I haven’t been able to locate the matches, either, it would’ve been small comfort to him. Somehow, pantomiming doesn’t work in this country. My friend Jen went to a hardware store in a futile search for nails. Apparently, she gathered quite a crowd as she acted out hammering things into walls. But she left without nails. Another woman I know forgot the word for bathroom. Her son really had to go, but they were in the middle of a store. So she acted out bathroom (no, I don’t know how she did it, but we can all imagine, I’m sure). The store employees nodded knowingly, and led her to a display of… toilet seat covers. Not too useful when you’ve got the laduzi, I’m sure.

And I may be wrong here, but I’m guessing you all remember what “laduzi” means. Crazy world, no?

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Bart and the Prez

As promised, here's a picture from President Carter's visit to the Embassy. He and his wife posed in front of the Embassy with the RSO staff.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Beijing Railway Museum

I heard a rumor that there was a train museum in Beijing, and I got it into my head that we needed to find it. So today, Bart’s only day off, I packed the diaper bag, and off we went.

First, however, I called the front desk and asked them to help me get directions. They called me back with some vague directions, which I apparently misspelled. Because we never did find the street where we were supposed to turn left. It was Danshizhu… or Tanshigu, or Dazushu, or something like that.

When we couldn’t find the street, but we thought we’d probably passed it, we just turned left and headed in that general direction. And sure enough, somehow we ended up on exactly the street we needed. We followed it to the end, and after much back and forthing and rolling down of windows to ask directions, we arrived at the museum. Here Bart came in handy. I can say “train” in Chinese (hua che), but not museum. Also, since I can’t understand what anybody says, I would’ve just stared blankly as they told me to go back and turn right at the tracks. But Bart understood – that last year of language hell paid off today.

So we found the museum, and the kids absolutely loved it. There were steam engines and sleeper cars and even an ancient little engine that was the tiniest thing I’d ever seen – and the kids were allowed to climb all over everything. They got absolutely filthy, but they had a blast.

Tomorrow Bart goes back to work. And I’ll have all three kids at home for the next three weeks – Shay has a long winter break. I’m not sure how I’ll have the time to get any real writing done, but I’ve contracted to write two articles over the next few weeks, and I’m working on a couple of other things as well, so I’d better keep working despite the craziness that’ll reign in the house.

Kyra plays basketball

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Getting Ready for the Holidays

Aidan got his face painted at a holiday party last Saturday. And the boys decorated the trees (we're up to three trees now). It snowed for the first time on Sunday night - when Aidan saw the snow in the morning, he asked "Is Santa coming today?"

No, but Santa's coming soon - too soon. I was out at the Hongqiao toy market today, looking for Star Wars Legos and a baby basketball hoop. No success on either front, so Santa will have to make other plans.

I did get to barter in Chinese - no easy feat when I still have trouble understanding what's being said around me. I have, however, learned to adopt a shocked expression and exclaim "tai gui le!" (too expensive!). It took all day to drive there, barter for a few things and find our way home again. It's so much easier when you just drive down the street to Target and pay whatever price is on the tag. One transaction alone took well over 45 minutes - just to argue about the quantity and the price, then to find the right colors.

More from me later. Bart's working late, so I'm off to toss the kids in a quick bath before bedtime.

Enjoy the photos...

Friday, December 7, 2007

Life Goes On

Since last I wrote about learning to drive in Beijing, I’ve been driving up a storm. I’ve been in and out of the city on numerous occasions without major difficulties. The biggest problem, really, is that I don’t have a street map. My only map is a one page Lonely Planet guide showing major streets and landmarks. So I squint at that for awhile and try to find my ending point. I then attempt to determine which ring road I should take to get there – there are 5 ring roads circling the city. I look for a street that may or may not be my exit. Then I hop in the car and head out, hoping for the best.

One day, I had an appointment with the ENT (who, by the way, charged me $200 to tell me I’m still deaf. Which made for a Very Bad Day.). I drove into town, missed what I thought was my exit, got off one stop later and circled back until I found a street I recognized. Made my way to the hospital with time to spare. I parked on a side street near the hospital and began to walk away when some guy on a moped started yelling at me. After some discussion, I finally figured out that he was the parking attendant and I needed to pay him 5 kwai to park there for 2 hours. So okay. It wasn’t pretty, but I pulled enough Chinese out of my head to get that much figured out.

The next day, I took off down the 4th ring road en route to a meeting with my editor at the magazine I’ve been freelancing for. I found my way to her building, despite the fact that I got off the road in the completely wrong place. I veered in and out of bike lanes, honked and was honked at, even made a u-turn or two. But somehow, I eventually ended up in her neighborhood. And lo and behold, there was an actual parking garage in front of me. As I pulled in, I realized, I was in the parking garage that belonged to her building! Miracle of miracles! Feeling rather proud, I parked and got out, noted which space I was parked in, and made my way toward an exit sign.

The exit door was padlocked, but no matter. I found another exit sign and followed that. It led me into a dank, dark hallway, through a construction zone, past several curious Chinese, up a horror-film type stairway and to a glass door that led to the street. Would have led, that is, but for the fact that it, too, was padlocked shut.

Now I was feeling A.) panicky, B.) annoyed and C.) late. I thought about asking someone where the exit was. But of course, I don’t know how to say “where is the exit?” in Chinese. I can say “where is the American Embassy?” I can say “Where is my daughter?” I can say “Where is my cup of coffee?” I can even say “My computer is broken, can you please come to my house tomorrow morning at 10 a.m. to fix it?” (I’m bragging now, aren’t I?) But I can’t ask the one thing I really need to know right about now. So I pull out the cell phone and call a friend. Her husband answers, and he can say “exit:” chuko. (Now you know. In case you’re ever locked in an underground parking garage in China, you can ask “Chuko zainar?”) Armed with this knowledge, I find my way out, and get to my meeting on time.

So you see, I’m settled in. Getting locked in a massive underground parking garage is just no big deal anymore.

I have a game I sometimes play when I’m overseas just to keep things new. I pretend someone is visiting me, and I try to see what things would look like to them, as visitors. So the last time I got in the car, I pretended my parents were with me. My pretend mom was riding up front, and my dad was in the back. My mom looked a little uncomfortable because I was hitting the speed bumps too fast, but my dad didn’t seem to like it when I veered around one, cutting off a bike rider in the process. My dad was appalled to see the lady who was riding her bike down the middle of the road, against traffic, with a small child on the handlebars. My mom, meanwhile, was asking about the crazy truck with two wheels in the back but just one in the front. “That just seems like it would fall over around the corners,” she commented. My dad cringed on the highway when I accelerated to get around the slow bus, braking hard and pulling back in front of the bus before I hit the taxi in the fast lane. And on and on it went, the whole way to the Embassy and home again. My imaginary parents were nervous driving with me, I can tell you that. I’m pretty sure they talked about it after I went to bed that night, and you can bet my mom got on the phone with my Aunt Ann that night to tell her how scary it was driving with me. My dad probably cracked some joke about how they’d overpaid for my drivers’ ed classes, way back when. But, hey, what do they want? We got there and back safely, after all. And we had a nice lunch together, too. I think they’re enjoying their imaginary visit.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Another Article For You

I know, I know. I've been terribly out of touch with all of you. I've been busy finishing up my holiday shopping, meeting with an editor, reviewing restaurants, writing articles, studying Chinese, seeing President Carter, mailing Christmas gifts home, baking cookies for Shay's classmates, finding my way around town, reading a big stash of cheesy magazines that I inherited, playing with kids, cooking dinner, visiting doctors, filling and refilling humidifiers... everything, it seems, except sleeping and blogging.

Here, in case you're interested, is my latest article.
Please. Write your own stuff.