Thursday, January 31, 2008

On My Own

Xiao Tong, our fabulous ayi, just left for a two-week vacation. Today was my first day without her, and boy do I miss her.

Xiao Tong typically stayed with Kyra while I took Aidan to school, so Kyra never got to see his school. Until today. She came with us, and while I was filling out some forms in front, she was wandering, checking it all out with wide eyes. Then she grinned her sneaky grin and took off for Aidan's classroom, at the end of the hall.

"That's okay," said the administrator. "She can play in there while we finish up."

Two minutes later, I went down the hall to get her, and she was sitting in the chair next to Aidan, happily rolling and cutting her own playdough. The teachers didn't mind if she stayed, but I had to drive downtown for a doctor's appointment, so I had to drag her out of there, kicking and screaming.

Sigh. I guess we'll have to start saving for her pre-school soon. She looked like a kid who really wanted to stay.

Anyway, my life of leisure is over, at least for the next two weeks. When there's no Xiao Tong, the kids have to go everywhere with me. I'm not quite sure how I'll manage with Kyra in the store, as they don't have carts that you can buckle kids into. But if I keep her in a stroller, I can't push a cart. Back when we first arrived, Shay would push Kyra while I pushed the cart, but he's in school now. Hmmmm. It's a puzzle, but I'll have to solve it tomorrow morning.

Right after I drag her out of Aidan's school again.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Pre-School Blues

So we finally did it. We scraped together enough cash to enroll Aidan in pre-school.

Pre-school costs are seriously outta control here, ranging from about 8K/year on the low end up to 24K. So really, you have to choose: do I want to send my kid to pre-school? Or do I hope some day to partially fund his college education? You shouldn’t have to choose, but there it is.

In the fall, Aidan will start kindergarten at one of these pricey schools, courtesy of the State Dept (your tax dollars at work!). But until he’s 5 years old, we’re on our own.

We’d resigned ourselves to the fact that he wouldn’t be going, but we couldn’t help feeling we were doing him a disservice by keeping him home, as next year he’ll be thrust into an all-day, hard-core educational environment.

The final straw snapped when we enrolled him in soccer. He was thrilled to go, but when he got there and saw all the other kids, he burst into tears and refused to participate. Bummer about the soccer, but it made us realize we couldn’t let him hide from situations like that forever, and we decided we had to make school work, if only to ensure that he wouldn’t burst into tears when the time came to board the bus for kindergarten.

So he started at the cheapest one we could find, a little art-focused school just down the road. He started last Friday, when the school held a Chinese New Year’s party, and he had a great time making dumplings, doing Chinese calligraphy and papercutting, and listening to an opera singer from the Beijing Opera, who performed snippets of different characters and played some traditional Chinese instruments.

The class is small – just 5 other kids, and only 1 other American – so it’s a good size for him. And the school is heavy into arts and crafts, which he loves. He also gets to take tennis, kungfu and Chinese classes.

So far, so good. He seems to be having a great time. In fact, he told me he wants to sleep at the school from now on. Of course, next week Chinese New Year begins, so school will be closed for 2 weeks. But it’ll give him something to look forward to.

Me, I’m already looking forward to college. I just finished up a story about “preparing your kids for college,” and one of the sources I interviewed was a financial advisor. He took me through the financial calculators, and determined that if we want to send all four kids to U.S. colleges, we need to save $1500 a month from now until baby #4 heads off to Harvard. $1500 a month. Here I’d been hoping he would congratulate me on how good a job we’ve done thus far saving for college – alas, apparently we’re nowhere near our goal.

Let’s hope the kids all get scholarships at state schools somewhere. Because who knows? We could still be paying off pre-school 18 years from now…

Monday, January 28, 2008

School Bus Scandals

Remember the good ole days, when you used to worry because maybe the kids weren’t eating enough vegetables, or they filled up on milk and didn’t eat dinner, which couldn’t be healthy, or they were late to talk or early to climb or didn’t want to fingerpaint or some such thing?

The reason you get small babies, aside from the physical impossibility of actually giving birth to a 7-year-old, is because you get to practice on small problems before graduating to big ones. The teenage years seem very far away when you’re holding a teensy grasping little baby whose biggest issue is that she hasn’t pooped in 24 hours, so you might need to call the doctor but you’re not sure and what does the baby book say?

So I’m standing in the juice aisle at Jenny Lou’s, trying to decide which is a healthier lunchbox drink, peach juice or orange juice, when my cell phone rings. It’s Cindy the Head Bus Monitor, calling about Shay. It turns out Shay has been written up by the bus monitors on his school bus, who spotted him Hitting a Kindergarten Girl In the Face. Seriously. You can cut the crusts off of their sandwiches til you’re blue in the face, but all that love can’t stop them from beating up small girls. So now I’m feeling slightly sick as I listen to Cindy giving the details, which include “You’re going to need to ride the bus with your son next week.”

This happened last week.

Ironically, I couldn’t get in touch with Bart because he was at the school, giving a speech to the PTA about “How To Keep Your Kids Safe.” I didn’t ask if this talk was to include a section on “School Bus Bullies.”

Bart got home from his speech just a few minutes before Shay returned from school himself, and we spent the few minutes before Shay’s return discussing our options (No birthday party! Grounded for a year! Apologize to the girl’s family! Pay for mom’s taxi rides to/from school bus! Go to your room forever! That kind of thing). But Bart had zillions of questions about the incident, so he called Cindy the Head Bus Monitor himself and went all federal agent on her: “Were there any witnesses to the attack?” “Can you tell me what provoked the aforementioned attack?” “Spell that name for me please.” After getting the details, he called the girl’s dad at work – the family lives across the street from us, and the dad works at the Embassy with Bart, so he wanted to let the dad know what was going on.

By this time Shay was home, happily munching his snack. He had neglected to mention his run-in with the girl, but he was starting to get suspicious of the fact that his dad was home, mid-day, dressed in a suit, talking on the phone with a notepad and pen in front of him.

So Bart summoned Shay in for his version of events, and that’s when things got very federal agent-y. Shay, of course, denied the whole thing ever happened: “They’re lying! They just want to get me in trouble.”

Bart: I don’t believe they’re lying.
Shay: Well, they are.
Bart: I think you’re lying.
Shay: Well I’m not.
Bart: I know you’re lying. When you lie, you cross your arms and look to the left. It’s a classic sign. It’s tough having a dad who’s been trained to interrogate people, but there it is. So tell me what happened, because you’re already in enough trouble.

At this point, I was waiting for Lenny from Law and Order to come in and play the good cop. Shay was flummoxed. He didn’t quite know what else to do, so he finally gave his version of events, which was basically that the girl was tormenting him, hitting him with her shoes and teasing him, until he finally threw her shoes up in the luggage rack and knocked her down, at which point her brother told on Shay, and the bus monitors wrote him up.

Meanwhile, in neighbor dad’s house, poor little Rebecca was undergoing an interrogation of her own. The doorbell rang, and it was Rebecca’s mom. We dismissed Shay, who ran crying to his room (“Everybody hates me. I’m going to lose my Nintendo forever. I’m never going to see my friends again.” Etc, etc.).

Turns out Rebecca’s mom got pretty much the same story from Rebecca: she was hitting Shay with her shoes until he finally got fed up and pushed her. So the mom thought Shay got all the blame because Rebecca is a cute little girl and Shay’s a big 2nd grader. But she thought her daughter started it and also needed to get in trouble.

We talked for awhile, then summoned the two kids to apologize to each other. Truly, they are friends, and they play together all the time on the street, so it was probably just a sibling-type of fight. But both kids were mortified to have to apologize. The next day, Rebecca’s mom marched her to the principal’s office, where Rebecca was told to explain that she had started the fight that got Shay in trouble. That is one tough mom, I tell you. And the next day I reported to the school for bus riding duty. Shay was mortified when I got on the bus with him, and when I started chatting with his busmates, he tried his best to disappear beneath the floorboards. “Mom,” he hissed, “stop talking to them.” He was appalled when I wouldn’t stop.

Thankfully, because it turned out that the little girl was also partially at fault, they aren’t going make me ride the school bus forever. Just a couple more times. Still. I’m thinking this will all seem a lot funnier after Shay has graduated from college and gone on to become the U.S. Ambassador to France or something like that.

I have this friend Laura who is married to a guy, David. David is one of the smartest people you could ever meet: a diplomat with a PhD who speaks, like, 5 different languages. But once, when his mom came to visit overseas and Shay was still in diapers, Laura and I were sitting around talking about the travails of potty-training. “Oh, don’t worry,” David’s mom piped up, “David was still wetting his pants when he was four, and look at him now!” I think about that comment, probably more often than David himself would like. The things we worry about now, the things that seem so monumental, like wetting yourself or getting in fights on the school bus, will seem small some day.

Some day. In the mean time, I’ll be riding the bus.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Back From Hong Kong

We returned from our whirlwind trip to Hong Kong late Tuesday night. It was fun – as much fun as a trip with three small kids can be, anyway.

We arrived late Friday and walked through Hong Kong Park to the central district, where we grabbed dinner and some really yummy ice cream. The kids actually made it the whole way with a minimal amount of whining, despite the late hour. On Saturday, we loaded them into the metro for the trip the Disneyland. As usual, everywhere we went, people wanted to talk to Aidan and take his picture. He just smiled and hid his head. I don’t know why he’s such a magnet around these parts – the smile? The curly hair?

The kids loved Disneyland, though Kyra was too small for many rides, I was too pregnant, and Aidan was too scared. During the riverboat cruise, you sail past animatronic hippos, zebras, crocodiles and the like. It’s supposed to be fun when the elephants splash you and your boat bumps down the rapids, but I couldn’t convince Aidan that it was all pretend. At one point, the boat got “trapped” near a waterfall and something burst into flames. Everyone on the boat laughed and clapped and smiled – except Aidan and Kyra, who both started wailing. When the ride ended, I led a tearful Aidan off the boat, still trying to convince him that it was all pretend. “But mama,” he sobbed, “that fire was real!”

After that, he pretty much refused to go on most of the rides, but he still seemed to have a good time. He and Kyra especially loved the water park area, with water cannons and bubble pools and the like, which of course made Bart crazy, because “you can see water in most any park.”

At any rate, it was all good, except lunch: nothing on offer for vegetarians, and not a chicken nugget in sight. Our little ones subsisted on soda and French fries, but I consoled myself with the thought that one day of such fare wouldn’t likely kill them.

Next day we took a ferry boat ride – big hit with the kids - and then wandered into the vendor stalls in the wanchai district. I love that little section of town. It looks just how I imagined Beijing should look, before we moved here: narrow streets lined with flashing neon signs and teeming with people; vendors selling live chickens, dried fish, exotic fruits, ladies underwear... The kids were thrilled to find a cheap little toy store, and they both bought cars for souvenirs. Kyra just pointed at the dolls and said “Monkey! Monkey!” over and over. Still, we couldn’t get them to eat much more than the chicken nuggets, fries and soda we found at a nearby McDonalds.

The next day was Monday, and Bart had to report for work, so I was left alone with three kids in a hilly town. Not a stroller-friendly situation. But we made the most of it, visiting the aviary and the playground in Hong Kong Park, riding a trolley bus, and watching cartoons back at the hotel. Ditto for Tuesday.

We flew out on Tuesday evening. By now Aidan was cranky from lack of sleep and overindulgence in soda. Kyra had developed a cough. Shay, on the other hand, was the picture of health and kept begging to move to Hong Kong. When asked why, he answered, “I just like it… and I can wear a t-shirt in the middle of winter.”

We flew home, and Aidan finally slept on the plane. Kyra, of course, did not, which was especially irritating as Aidan was sharing space with Bart, while Kyra was on my side of the plane. I get all the luck. No matter, though. When it was time to deplane, Bart carried sleepy head Aidan onto the bus that was to take us to the terminal. The bus was absolutely packed to the gills with Beijingers – no room even to move an elbow – when Aidan propped himself up and vomited up a weekend’s worth of sprite, all over Bart, all over the carry-on luggage, all over the neighboring passengers. If you ever need to clear more space in a crowded place, I think we’ve found a way. Bart had a four-foot radius of elbow room around him in every direction, though I never could figure out where all those people disappeared to while the bus was still moving.

So Bart had to carry a now-stinking Aidan through the airport, past customs and immigration and baggage and all the other stops until we found the car and got ourselves home.

Aidan was sick all day Wednesday but is fine now. Kyra is still coughing up a lung, poor thing.

All in all, it was a worthwhile trip. But I have to admit, my month alone in Hong Kong was a bit more peaceful. And not so heavy on the fries.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

I'm a Columnist

If you've been reading my blog attentively, you already know I've been writing feature articles for tbjkids magazine for the past couple of months. They recently asked me to write a monthly column about my experiences raising kids in Beijing and learning to adapt to this new culture.

My first column appeared in the January/February issue. You can find it here. Enjoy...

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Dou Miao

My neighbor just dropped by unexpectedly with a big bag of my new favorite vegetable - dou miao. Dou miao are snow pea shoots or vines. They look a bit like spinach, but are leggier and chewier. Xiao Tong sautes them with garlic and salt, and Aidan and I fight over them. I don't know if Bart likes them or not - I don't think they've ever stayed in the kitchen long enough for him to try them.

If you have a Chinese grocery store near you, go see if they sell dou miao and give it a try.

We're off to Hong Kong tomorrow for a quick family vacation. It's all a bit last minute - we have plane tickets, but no hotel yet. So we'll see what happens. Back on Tuesday night, and I'll give y'all an update after that.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Night at the Zoo

It's never quiet in our house. Even at night.

Late last night, just before bedtime, Bart came home, bearing belated Christmas gifts for the boys from their Uncle Sean. Now, Uncle Sean has a knack for finding the wackiest toys on the face of the planet, so it came as no big surprise to find "Flingshot Monkeys" inside. You put your fingers into little holes in the monkey's hands, pull back on his tail, and let go. The monkey goes airborne, flying across the room and screaming like a, well, like a monkey at the zoo, I suppose.

The boys loved them, of course. It was awhile before I got them to put the monkeys (and themselves) to bed.

When I went to bed myself later on, I found Aidan curled up sleeping next to his daddy, arms tight around Flingshot Monkey. Sigh. I knew I was in for a long night of being kicked awake by sleeping Aidan - he might LOOK peaceful and angelic when he's asleep, but he never stops moving.

Resigned, I crawled into bed, only to be awakened awhile later by Kyra. Right now, she sleeps in a crib in our room, which is fine, except when she drops her pacifier. She adores that slimy thing, calls it "pa," and sleeps with it stashed between her teeth. When it falls out, she wakes up and whimpers "pa.... pa...." until someone (me) wakes up and crawls around on the floor to find it.

Some nights she sleeps all night with a firm grip on it. Other nights, she tosses and turns, and that darned pa falls every hour or so. Last night was the latter. So I was awake half the night, either being kicked in the belly by Aidan or searching for pa.

To make matters worse, Shay chose last night to start sleepwalking. At least, I think that's what he was doing. Because I heard an odd noise and pried my eyelids open to see him standing in the doorway, just hanging out. When I asked him what was wrong, he seemed confused. I led him back to his bedroom, where he climbed onto his bunk and promptly went back to sleep.

I went back to bed, checking the clock on the way (3:45 a.m.). I had just shut my eyes when Aidan rolled over to kick me and I heard this gawdawful screaming. I bolted upright. It wasn't coming from me. Nor my kids. It appeared to be in my bedroom, and it sounded like, well, like a monkey at the zoo, I suppose.

Flingshot Monkey.

Thanks, Uncle Sean, for the thoughtful gift. I'm going to get an early start on shopping for your Christmas presents this year...

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Please. Write your own stuff.