Friday, October 30, 2009

Bad Day, Good Day

Yesterday was a disaster of a day, primarily because I invited myself along to join some friends who were going out, only to discover they weren't going where I thought they were or where I wanted to be. I was wearing rather uncomfortable heels - part of an effort to look decent in the morning because I was going to a parent meeting at the school. I spent the morning learning math - the 4th grade teachers taught us all how to add and multiply the "Everyday Math" way - and I figured I might seem like an idiot when I screwed up the answer to 4x9, but at least my feet would be looking good.

Big mistake. After the meeting, my friends picked me up for what I thought would be a spa trip or lunch somewhere fun. Turns out they changed their minds and decided to go shopping downtown instead. I had not enough money to purchase anything, and no great desire to acquire, though I did buy a bunch of inexpensive holiday candles and a big box of wrapping paper, just because. But I mostly just followed them around making snide remarks til they tired of me. Then we all drove back toward home, and they decided to get manicures on the way. I didn't have any money left, but didn't want to say anything, so I waited with them while they got their manicures. Eventually it became apparent that they wouldn't be finished in time to get me home to pick up my car and head back to the school for the big 1st grade musical performance. So I left them there, hoisted my bag o candles and my gigantic box of paper, and I started hiking home, heels and all.

It was only a 15-minute walk, but by the time I got back my left foot was screaming in pain and my right foot was numb. I had not quite enough time to drop the candles and paper, grab the keys and head back to the school. No time at all to change my shoes. Naturally, the performance was in the theater at the far end of the school from the parking lot. I limped along as quickly as I could, but I was a few minutes late, which meant I had to stand the entire hour. I was almost in tears by then.

The other moms in the audience probably thought I was just the emotional type, tearing up when I saw my son had his own solo in the performance. That's right: he was the moon in the song about the cycles of the earth. So he had to walk around two kids who were supposed to be the earth. They in turn walked around four kids dressed in yellow to represent the sun. Behind this amazing display of choreographic brilliance, the rest of the first graders sang a song to the tune of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." The lyrics were something like "The earth revolves around the sun, hurrah, hurrah. It takes 365 days hurrah, hurrah." And there I was, crying and bleeding from the toenails and looking like a crazy lady, who by the way, did you notice she can't answer 6x8? I saw her looking all dazed and confused in the math seminar this morning, too.

But okay. Given the craziness that was my yesterday, I decided to lay low today and nurse my wounded arches back to health. I didn't have a car today, anyway: Some random Chinese man picked it up this morning and drove it away for its annual inspection, leaving me to wonder vaguely whether my insurance would cover it if he crashed on the expressway.

I rode my bike to Kyra's new school for their Halloween party. (Have I even mentioned yet that she's going to school part-time now? I'm so far behind on my stories. Well, she is, three days a week, three hours a day, because I found a school that took pity on me and worked out a part-time flexible payment arangement. But I digress.) I was fabulously late, as I'd already scheduled and rescheduled a haircut, and I was determined not to miss it this time. So my hair looked good when I walked in almost an hour late. I'm a horrible mother, aren't I?

I arrived just in time for the pumpkin decorating craft. I am a horribly uncrafty person, so the glue sticks and pompoms were too much for me. But we tried, Kyra and I, and you'll see that our pumpkin doesn't look half bad (front row center in the photo). Kyra was just thrilled to be dressed in her Belle costume - isn't she cute?

After the party, we rode home. Kyra ate lunch and took a long nap. I sent Xiao Tong home super early and Ainsley and I crashed on the couch. She read a book, ate pretzels and bopped me on the head. I read my book, ate her pretzels, and played an occasional round of peek-a-boo. We spent an hour thus engaged, my sad blistered feet up on the coffee table. It rained outside, but inside all was calm. For a few minutes, anyway. Soon enough, the boys came home from school, Kyra awoke and it was time to get ready for dinner.

But I'd already made dinner, the night before, in a brief burst of energy. So even dinner was relatively low key for once.

All in all: a good day. Even if I was constantly humming "the moon revolves around the earth, hurrah, hurrah."

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

She's Back!

Thanks be, Xiao Tong has returned, and along with her, a little piece of my sanity.

She is now taking the bus, despite the longer commute time, because she isn't ready to get back on a bike. But she's here! Hurray!

Kyra took one look at her and asked to see her "bleedy."

My mom leaves for the States tomorrow, so we'll try to squeeze in one last massage in the morning and then off she'll go. It's been fun, but I think she's ready to get home again. She's almost all shopped out, even.

I have loads o things to do after she leaves, from writing articles to scheduling doctor appointments to figuring out when, exactly, I'll be returning to work. I've been too busy to keep up, what with shopping and tourist-ing and cleaning my own darn house.

But it's been fun, and we'll miss her.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Yesterday's Fun Run

Today you get two posts for the price of one!

I just posted pictures of today's trip to Beihai Park, but I also need to mention that we joined in the "Pride in Beijing" Fun Run yesterday.

Shay and Bart ran the 5K. Shay placed 4th; Bart got 5th overall. They ran it in 22.18.

Aidan ran the 3K. I'm not sure what he placed, but he ran pretty much the whole way and finished in 22.50. Amazing.

Afterwards, all three of my boys posed for a little "Team Colgate" picture. Aren't they cute?

Beihai Park

We took my mom to Beihai Park today, and it was really beautiful, despite the gloomy skies. You can see the White Dagoda in the background of a few of these pictures. It's a bit of a climb to the top with kids and strollers, but we made it, and the view is worth it. It would be amazing on a clear day, but alas...

Ainsley posed in the courtyard of one of the Buddhist temples.

The kids all liked the cannons at the top of the Dagoda.

Aidan enjoyed the rooftop view of the Forbidden City through the haze.

Kyra checking out the Buddhist prayer wheel...

Back at the base of the hill, we met up with a calligrapher who gave the kids some water brushes to draw with. Shay gathered quite a crowd as he wrote in Chinese characters. The calligrapher gave him a thumbs up, and the crowd all cheered him on. It was pretty fun to watch him writing.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Because You're Certainly Wondering

Several of you have emailed, asking how Xiao Tong is doing now. Well, she got out of the hospital last Friday. She went for a follow-up visit and the doctor found no problems. She gets her stitches out tomorrow. So when, you ask, might she be coming back to work?

I talked to her yesterday, and she said she "thinks" she can come back in November.

November. She thinks.


I have the best ayi in all of Beijing, truly I do. And I know she went through a pretty traumatic accident. But - November? Really? This is my first run-in with the Chinese way of handling these situations. Americans would mostly be back at work quickly, headache or no. We accrue sick days, and we don't want to use them all at once. Chinese? Not so much.

So we'll see. I'm trying very hard to maintain a sympathetic attitude. But it is a bit difficult, especially as my mother only has one more week in Beijing, and not having someone here to watch the girls makes it difficult to really get out and do the things she wants to do.

We're managing though. We've been to the Silk Market, the Pearl Market and a few smaller shops. Last weekend, we took the whole family to brunch and then for a stroll through Chaoyang Park - it's a beautiful park near the Embassy, though there was a nasty dust storm that day, so we didn't stay long. Bart is going to come home early on Thursday so I can take my mom to the Forbidden City - not a kid-friendly venue. And then we'll plan something for the weekend.

Tomorrow will be crazy busy: Kyra to school, catching up on groceries, Shay's school for a Chinese presentation, possible doctor's appointment, kids' ASAs and a Halloween party at the neighbors. Not exactly a dream day for a tourist, but it all has to get done.

All without Xiao Tong.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Some Lighter Reading

And, despite the fact that I really ought to be in bed by now, here's your bonus post for the evening: a new article, by me. The web spacing is a little off, making it tricky to read the ending, but oh well. Digg it or stumble it if you like it.

Inside the 999

The 999 Hospital is rather far away, just off the 5th Ring Road near the Badaling Expressway. It’s easy enough to see from the highway, but hard to get to. It has a huge red sign on top: 999. Can’t miss it. Unfortunately, you can’t see it until you’re past your exit. Only a wee bit frustrating when you’re rushing.

We get there at last – now over three hours since that first call - and I explain to a nurse at the desk why we’re there. I show her the police paper, and she leads us through the ambulance bay to the emergency room, where a doctor points us to the first gurney.

There’s Xiao Tong, lying on the gurney with her head wrapped in a wad of bloody gauze, looking just like a cartoon character. When she sees us, she tries to sit up, but she can’t. She’s shaking a little, from fear or shock, I guess. Her hair is matted with blood, her clothes are blood-soaked and filthy. They’ve stitched up her head and given her an IV of saline, but she needs medicine, and a CT scan to rule out bleeding in her brain, neither of which they will do until I pay. Cash up front, you see: no such thing in this country as private insurance.

We leave Xiao Tong there on her gurney and go up to the second floor, to a tiny room full of people trying to pay bills. We fork over about $100 and take our receipt downstairs. They look over the receipt, then hand me the bag of saline solution. My mom takes my purse, I take the back end of the gurney, a guy in a white coat takes the front end and we pull Xiao Tong back through the ambulance bay to the CT machine.

At this point I realize people are staring, open-mouthed, at our strange little parade. My mom and I are the only two laowai in the whole place, and we’re pushing a bloody Chinese lady on a gurney through the ER. It was quite a sight. I’m not sure any other foreigners were anywhere near that hospital – if they were, I never saw them.

After the CT, we wheeled her back to the ER to await the results. A few flies buzzed around her blood-soaked gauze as we tried our best to keep them away. For awhile, all the other gurneys were filled with patients, but the room was amazingly quiet considering the level of activity.

Thirty minutes later, they sent me back down the hall to get the results. I hand carried them to the doctor, who looked at them, then gestured for me and my mom to follow her, away from Xiao Tong. “Blah blahblah blah,” she seemed to say, gesturing at the film. “Blah blah nothing here blah.” “Are you telling me it’s okay?” I asked and she nodded her head, answering, “yes, but blah blah.” Or maybe she said “perhaps, and blah blah.” I couldn’t tell for certain. I took a deep breath and said, slowly, in Chinese “inside of her head it is good, yes?” “Blah blah good,” answered the doctor. Or was it “blah blah not good”?? Another doctor appeared and mustered up a few English words: yes, he said, it was good. But: she needs to stay in the hospital for at least four days, and we have a choice. She can stay in the expensive room, where a doctor and nurse will monitor her condition, or she can stay in an inexpensive room, where no one will check on her. The expensive room, it turns out, costs about $24 per day. So we went with that. They sent us back upstairs to the cashier with a pile of receipts, to cover the room and the medications.

Back at the window, the cashier smiled and typed some things into her computer. “8000 RMB” she told us cheerfully. More than $1000. I asked again, thinking I’d heard wrong. But no. 8000 RMB. I don’t have that kind of money, I explained. They told me it was 150 RMB per night. No, she said, it’s 150 USD. But even that wouldn’t add up to 8000 RMB. I was confused. I tried to explain about the 150 RMB, and she threw around USD. We back and forthed for awhile, til she picked up a phone. After chatting for a minute, she came back and told us it would be just 600 RMB.

We paid, and went back to Xiao Tong. We’d been gone about 30 minutes, and the poor woman was in a panic. It seems that after they led us away to give us her CT results, they neglected to come back and tell her that all was okay. So she laid there worrying that we hadn’t returned because something terrible was happening.

She finally got into a hospital room late that afternoon, and we left her there waiting for friends to arrive to stay with her. The next day, the police caught the man who’d hit her – it seems he fled the scene, leaving his truck behind, so he probably wasn’t terribly hard to find. Apparently, they brought him straight to her hospital room to negotiate a settlement. First he insisted he didn’t have any money, but finally it was determined that he had some 7000 RMB in life savings, so he was forced to fork it over to cover her medical expenses. He gave it to her that day; her friends found a safe place to keep it until she could get out of the hospital and put it in the bank. And the case was closed.

It seems my ayi got lucky. No broken bones, but a heckuva headache. They pumped her full of IV antibiotics for four days, and then sent her home on Friday. She hasn’t returned to work, and I have no idea when she’ll feel up to it. Meanwhile, I have a guest in the house and four kids at home, all of whom need to be entertained on some level. And I’m becoming reacquainted with my vacuum cleaner.

My friend Jen sent her ayi, An Ayi, over to watch the girls one day, so we did finally make it to the Silk Market (thanks Jen!). And we’ll see what we can accomplish this week without an ayi. For starters, we’re going to make a quick run to Sunny Gold Market to buy scarves and things tomorrow.

And now we’ve reached the end of my sad tale. If you’ve gotten this far in the story, you’ll probably know the moral.

Wear a helmet.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The 999 Hospital

Okay, where were we?

Xiao Tong’s bike was lying in the street, but she wasn’t there. The ambulance had just taken her away, someone said, but no one in the crowd seemed to know where she’d gone. A woman stepped forward and handed me her cell phone, which she’d apparently dropped. An old guy with just a few teeth kept pointing and shouting about something, but I couldn’t understand a word. I asked red coat what her name was. Xiao Li, she told me. She works for a family just down the street from me, and she and Xiao Tong are neighbors. They were riding in together, and she saw the whole thing. There was, she said in English, “very much blood.”

I called the people at the front desk in my housing compound. They speak English, so I explained what had happened and asked if they could track down where a 999 ambulance might have taken my ayi. They promised to look into it and call me back. I dug in my purse for a pen to write down what I was being told. I found: a diaper, a box of wipes, three stale teddy grahams, a packet of tissues, my wallet, a straw from a juice box, and some random coins from two different countries. I did not find a pen. I looked at the crowd of men standing in front of me and remembered that someone once told me that if you pronounce the word for “pen” with the wrong tone, you are actually saying an obscenity for the female anatomy.

“Anyone have a pen?” I asked, and no one giggled. So I figured, either I pronounced it right, or more likely, I pronounced it wrong, but they were all too shocked to say anything. After a pause, a guy with a long fu manchu thing growing on his face produced a pen for me. Phew.

The police arrived. They told me (I thought) to go get my car and come back for her bike. So I trotted back toward my car as quickly as my middle-aged legs could carry me. Amazingly, the car was still there, and it hadn’t been rammed by a bus or anything. I found my way back to the accident scene and waited… and waited… and waited some more, for the police to tell me what had become of Xiao Tong.

When they’d finished taking pictures and measuring and interviewing and doing all those things I know so well from Law & Order re-runs, they finally handed me a couple of pieces of paper. The first was a receipt for her bike, which they wouldn’t be letting me take after all. I think they explained why, but you know, this is China, so unlike the usual Law & Order episodes, they were all speaking Chinese. A lot went over my head. The second piece of paper was the one I really needed: it gave the name of the hospital where she’d been taken. But, ummm… were you not listening when I explained the Chinese thing? Yep, the paper was written entirely in Chinese characters, except for the numbers “999,” which I happen to know is the number for the ambulance service.

I asked, in Chinese, “Where is this hospital?” They answered, “It’s the 999 hospital,” and added on lots more Chinese words, none of which I understood.

So I thanked them, took the paper and drove back to my housing compound, hoping someone there could translate the paper for me. On my way back, the cell phone rang. It was Xiao Tong. “Donna, where are you?” she asked.

“Where are you?” I replied. “I’m trying to find you.”

“I’m at the 999 hospital,” she answered, “and the doctor lent me her cell phone. I don’t know where mine is.”

“Where is the 999 hospital?”

“I don’t know,” she replied. “Please, can you come here?”

At this point, I’m smacking the steering wheel in frustration. It’s been almost 2 hours since she first called, and I’m no closer to finding her than I was. But at least I know she’s in a hospital, somewhere in Beijing.

(okay, gotta go put the laundry in the dryer...)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Another Week, Another Hospital

On Tuesday, we were dressed and ready to go to the Silk Market for some serious shopping. We were just waiting for my ayi to show up. But then the phone rang (geez, I’m only three sentences in and this already sounds like a cheesy mystery novel). It was Xiao Tong, calling to tell me that she’d been hit by a car while riding her bike to my house. She didn’t know where she was, or at least couldn’t describe it to me, and she was bleeding profusely. A friend was there, and they’d called the ambulance, but she didn’t know when they’d get there. What she didn’t say, but I knew, was that even if the ambulance did arrive in time, the hospital wouldn’t touch her until she produced some cold, hard cash.

So I grabbed my keys and wallet, left the kids with my mom and set out to find Xiao Tong. I drove up and down the nearby streets, searching for a crowd of people and a downed bike.


After driving up every street I could think of, I called her, but she couldn’t explain where she was. I kept asking about landmarks I knew. “Are you near McDonald’s? Jingkelong? The flower market? The taxi stand?” No to everything, and what really worried me is that she was having trouble talking. She kept repeating the name of a street I’d never heard of and then fading off into the distance. Finally, she said she would send her friend, a woman in a red coat, to find me. So I resumed driving up and down, searching for a red-coated woman in the crowds of people biking to and from work.

At last I saw a red-coated woman walking a motorscooter down the four-lane highway. I stopped in the middle of the road and shouted at her in Chinese: are you Xiao Tong’s friend? She nodded, so I pulled off the road. She said she would lead me to the scene, but it was across the highway. So I backed up down the highway, with all sorts of people honking at me (really, people? Honking at me? You drive this way every day…), and I pulled some crazy maneuver to get to the other side of the highway.

Red-coat gestured down a steep dirt gully. She wanted me to drive down there, but there was no way my car would make it. So I left the car by the side of the road and scrambled down the dirt path on foot. Just off the highway there were some Chinese folks hanging out in a tent, and they were astonished to see me traipsing through their backyard with my new friend. She pointed past them, through the trees, and promised that there was a road up ahead.

Now, I know Xiao Tong, so I knew this wasn’t some elaborate ruse to get me into the forest and steal my wallet. But still, it seemed a little odd that I was following some mysterious stranger into the woods on the side of a highway. With a slight bit of apprehension and one backward glance at my car, I followed her in.

She was right, though: we cleared the trees and came out onto a deserted road. She gestured for me to climb on the back of her motorcycle, so I hopped up and we drove off down the road. It was a road I’d been on once before, behind some housing complexes and a hotel. We drove for a couple of minutes before arriving at the scene: a big blue truck stopped across the intersection, and next to it, my sweet little ayi’s bike. A puddle of blood. A crowd of old Chinese men. But no Xiao Tong.


To be continued…. seriously? I hate when people do a to-be-continued thing on their blogs and expect me to come back the next day. Who do they think they are, Charles Dickens? But sorry, folks: you might have guessed from the way this story started that I am currently without an ayi, so I’m going to have to finish this after I finish all of the household chores that I usually just ignore. I’ll try to come back and finish the story tomorrow… if I’m not buried alive under a pile of laundry.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Longqing Gorge

We drove up to Longqing Gorge this weekend with my mom, who is in town again (a girl can never buy too many pearls, you know). We rode up a gigantic dragon-shaped escalator that appeared to be screwed into the side of the mountain with some old bolts. Half way up this tremendously long escalator, Aidan asked "how are we going to get down?" Which would have been a fabulous thing to ask ourselves before we stepped onto the escalator. But okay.

At the top of the escalator, you exit into a dimly lit tunnel, which begs the question: which part of the dragon are you supposed to be in now? Then, suddenly, you're on top of a dam, where you part with loads of cash in order to hop on a boat. But not just any old boat - you have to take the last one, which is tied to ten others. So you hop from boat to boat until you get to the last one. No time to stop and help your sainted mother across, as you're too busy carrying babies and watching your sons jump ahead. At this point, your mother will likely be thinking "I could be pearl shopping right now, but instead I'm about to drown in some crazy gorge noone's ever heard of because I missed a step and fell off one of these darn boats, and no one even noticed."

The boat ride was really quite pretty. We snapped some photos, below. At the end of the ride, we had a choice: pay more money to go further up the mountain on an open-air gondola (full disclosure: I'm scared of heights) or pay more money to go down the toboggan run. So, yes, we put my senior citizen mother on a toboggan and pushed her down the hill. At this point, she likely wasn't thinking of pearls anymore: she was probably thinking about her other kids, and how she always liked them better than me, and now she knew why.

But none of us plummeted to our deaths. Not even me, who was riding my toboggan with one hand on the brake and one arm around the baby. I couldn't work up too much speed - I only realized halfway down that my bag had gotten lodged under the wheel, slowing me down.

But no matter: tomorrow we'll be going pearl shopping at last, and I can always buy a new bag.

Enjoy the photos...

Friday, October 2, 2009

Happy Birthday China

I don’t know how they did it. The air quality has been awful for at least a week – so bad that the kids have had indoor recesses, and sporting activities at the school were cancelled as recently as Tuesday. So on Wednesday, when the day dawned brown and stinky, I wasn’t in the least surprised. But then, just 15 minutes before the big Chinese military parade was set to begin in downtown Beijing, a strange thing happened. The clouds parted, and the sky turned blue. Not the bright blue sky that I saw in the background while watching the parade on television (either it was clearer downtown or they have some tricky camera lenses). But the air was clear. I checked on the air quality site, and the pollution index went down from right around 200 at 9:30 a.m. to around 130 by 10:15.

However it happened, we’re enjoying the sun – which is out again today. It actually hurts my eyes, because I so seldom see it.

Despite the holiday, my husband had to work. I spent much of the day in the kitchen, with various combinations of kids underfoot or in time out. By evening, I was totally spent by an entire day of breaking up fights and calming whiny kids. So when Aidan refused to come upstairs to brush his teeth, I kind of lost it. He wanted me to come downstairs and get him a glass of water. I told him I was busy upstairs, but if he would come up and get ready for bed, we could get his water afterwards. He refused to come up. I refused to go down. I turned off the hall lights and said good night. He sat at the base of the stairs, sulking. Finally he stood up, still whining, and turned to come up the stairs. I heard a thump, and then he started screaming “Emergency! Emergency!”

I walked to the stairwell and saw him at the bottom of the stairs, spurting blood. Apparently he tripped as he tried to stomp up the stairs, and he bashed his forehead on the step.

So off we went to the ER – my second trip in about as many weeks. His forehead was split clear to the bone, and was really not fun to look at. Aidan was a model patient - while the doctor stitched him shut he stayed still and held my hand. He even sat still for the lydocaine shot.

When it was all over, he said “That was fun! Next time, I’ll definitely sit still for my stitches.” (I think he was remembering the last set of stitches, right after we moved here, when we had to hold him down while they stitched him up.)

Poor kid. And of course, I felt awful, because if I’d just managed to calmly convince him to come upstairs, or if I’d gone down to get his water instead of digging in my heels because I was tired, then none of this would’ve happened.

Last time, I promised you adventures. But really, I’m tired of visiting the ER every month. Every single member of our family has been at least once since we arrived here. I’m thinking we should just work out some sort of direct deposit situation, where we put half of our paychecks directly into the hospital’s coffers each month.

After Ainsley’s last visit, they told me I owed 200 RMB (about $30). But when I drove down there to pay it, the billing people couldn’t find a record of it, so I couldn’t pay. I sent an email to their billing staff, explaining what had happened. They somehow worked it out so they could email me an invoice, which I could bring to the hospital when I was ready to pay. But in the process, they discovered that they had “forgotten” to bill me for other visits, some dating all the way back to 2007. So they presented me with an invoice for over 11,000 RMB!!! Is it possible to put into words how utterly upset I was to suddenly get a bill for almost $2000? Especially as I ask them if I owe anything, every time I check out, and they always look it up and say no.

Sigh. Easy come, easy go.

The important thing is, Aidan is all stitched up and we’re starting a brand new sunshiny day. No big plans for the day – Shay wants to make dinner, so we’re going to walk to the store and buy ingredients to make pizza, salad and fruit dip. We pulled the recipes from Mollie Katzen’s cookbooks for kids – Pretend Soup and Honest Pretzels. If you have kids, you need these cookbooks – the kids can make everything in them, and they love doing it. We’ll probably have lunch while we’re out and about. I was planning to take them swimming, but Aidan can’t get his stitches wet. So maybe just a big game of scrabble in our future.

That's all for now. They're getting restless out there, which usually results in pillow fights or games of tag - neither of which will be good activities for my bloody-headed son today. So I'd best go entertain them.
Please. Write your own stuff.