Thursday, February 18, 2010

Balancing Act

Some people make it look effortless. I am not one of those people.

So here we go, with the post that will make me look like the whiniest fool you ever did see.

The kids are all out of school this week because of Chinese New Year. Many of their friends have flown away to enjoy the holiday on a beach somewhere (smart, smart friends). And of course, I have some sort of bizarre eye infection, causing me to have a blistering headache and a lingering fear that I am about to go half-blind as well as half-deaf, thanks to all of the lovely diseases this country has to offer.

All of which means: I am at wits end.

Normally, I have a full-time ayi. This is the most awesome aspect of my existence as a foreign service spouse here in Beijing. She is in my house forty hours a week. She watches the kids when I'm at work. She does the laundry. She cleans the house. She chops up a plate of fruit and another of veggies for dinner every single night. This amazing service keeps me sane, for the low, low price of about $350 per month. Which I can afford while we're overseas, because we don't have to pay rent for this house.

I know, I know. I hear you all clicking away now, looking for the link on how to apply for a job in the foreign service. (or, more accurately, you'd need a link on "how to marry a guy who has a career in the Foreign Service." Sorry. No such link. Just luck, I guess.)

But here's the thing. You need an ayi here, in a way you wouldn't back home. For starters, there's the pollution. The air is so dirty at times that the floors and surfaces have to be vacuumed, mopped and dusted every day, or who knows what you're walking on? And when you need to do the grocery shopping, keep in mind that there aren't any grocery carts with seatbelts. So if you take the kids to the store, you can either put them in unbelted and hope for the best, or you can lock them in a stroller, which is too wide for the aisles, or you can let them run through the store as you search for ingredients for dinner. Probably at least one of the ingredients you need will be out of stock (canned broth and tofu this week), so you'll need to stand there in the aisle and come up with an alternative, pronto, before your little angel discovers the aisle with all of the kids' candy right at eye level, or worse, remembers the toy store that is attached to the grocery store and takes off running.

There's no Target, or Costco, or Old Navy. You can't take the kids with you when you shop at the local markets, so you'll just have to leave them at home while you go in search of clothes and shoes. Which you'll have to barter for, at each individual stall - no price tags or check out lanes.

So here I am this week, without my ayi but with my four children, trying to do the cleaning and the shopping and the cooking and the entertaining and the diapering and it is really, really hard to keep it all together.

I'm actually doing better than I expected I would. The house is relatively clean (not neat, but clean). The kids are all eating several meals a day (Pizza. Lots and lots of pizza.) The laundry is folded and put away (okay, so maybe my husband had to fold most of it, but whatever. It's my blog, people. I don't have time for those little details.)

It's been cold here - too cold to take the kids out and enjoy the blue skies that we've been blessed with lately. (Aside: how do they manage to clear the air for every major holiday? If you take a good look at the satellite images, you'll probably see giant fans propped up on the Great Wall, blowing the pollution to Xinjiang...).

It's also been loud. The first night of the New Year, we took the kids out to watch the fireworks, and we were able to park so close to one display that we could hear the ashes from the falling fireworks sizzling on the car (yes, we moved.) Just before midnight that night, I awoke to a rolling thunder when fireworks displays started up all across town. From my bedroom window, I counted seven displays. Plus, I could see flashes of light almost non-stop, from fireworks that were going off out of my range of vision. The noise did not slow down for well over an hour - it was just one non-stop rumble. The kids slept through the whole thing, and I grew bored after ten minutes of watching, so I turned my deaf ear up and went back to sleep.

Every night since we're heard more fireworks, though they don't seem as intense as I remember. Is the global economic downturn affecting the cost of fireworks, or am I just sleeping through them better this year?

We've managed to keep relatively busy during the week, with brunch at one friend's house and a Valentine's party at another, with dinners out and cooking at home.

We even took the kids to the Chaoyang Acrobat Show for the first time, and they really enjoyed it. Ladies balancing on the bike were a big hit (see picture at the top of this post), as was the gentleman who was juggling while 20 feet in the air and running on the outside of a giant metal habitrail contraption.

So you see - if they can balance 20 girls on a moving bike, surely I can manage to get dinner on the table and get my office organized ahead of our impending packout.

Watch me try.


Jill said... [Reply]

You have grocery stores? With actual carts? Seriously?

I totally know what you mean about needing someone to mop, sweep, vacuum daily. We don't have the same kind of pollution - but the ground here is a virtual toilet - and goodness knows what you're tracking in on a daily basis.

Bless you for getting it all together this week. :)

Anonymous said... [Reply]

Girl. My husband also folded and put away the laundry this week and I have *no* such excuse as yours! You deserve some laundry folding right now!

And that picture was beautiful.

I loved the visual I pictured when you were talking about the fan blowing away all of the pollution in China for the holidays. Well, if any country had the ability to do such a thing, it would be China, right? Haven't they also figured out how to manipulate the weather?

Very sorry about your eye infection. I hope that it gets much better soon. That must be very scary for you.

Anonymous said... [Reply]

Just wanted to let you know about my experiment - I've started a weekly "Blog Roundup" of State Department blogs that I know about... and that includes yours! ... and their noteworthy happenings in the past week.

It's my way of trying to make it easier for everyone to keep up -to see who is out there - and what everyone is doing.


Connie said... [Reply]

Cairo was 'clean daily' dirty too. You are going to be much happier with Amman! There are still dusty days, it is a desert, but it is on a much saner level, and when I rub my finger through the dust on the shelf... it's white/grey dusty, not BLACK and oily :p I am looking to hire a part-time maid and babysitter, but only because I want to :) Can't wait for you to see the local grocery stores and malls. This morning, we had brunch at the club and lots of families were at the Embassy playing outside in the sun and warm breeze. Hang in there! And I hope your eye is better soon.

Jen said... [Reply]

Hope the eye is better soon, and that next week is a bit easier!

Brian Dear said... [Reply]

I was curious.. you mentioned no Costco or Target shops in Beijing. Do they have Wal Mart and Carrefour or Tesco there? I live in Suzhou, near Shanghai and it seems like it's well stocked with the "normal" types of hypermarkets. Even still -- visiting those places on a weekend is a nightmare! I don't have kids, so I can imagine your difficulties. Good thing you have the ayi! Anyway, I'm visiting Beijing on Saturday to take the Foreign Service Exam at the embassy.. I'm looking forward to seeing the city, especially after having read your blog! Nice work on the writing!

Donna said... [Reply]

@Brian Dear - They have Carrefour in Beijing, and I've been there a few times, but it's kind of far. I know they have Wal-Mart, but it's really far and I've never once been. I just don't have the time to justify a whole day in search of a store I can't stand in the States.

Good luck with the Foreign Service exam. It's not as bad as people make it out to be - I actually thought it was kind of fun.

Brian Dear said... [Reply]

It's far worse here in China (the Wal Marts etc.)! Imagine the worst crowded day of Wal Mart shopping and then add in all of the "best" parts of shopping in China and you'll need to take up alcoholism just to recover! I agree with you 100%!

Anyway, great blog.. I look forward to reading your future posts!

Please. Write your own stuff.