Sunday, January 30, 2011

Meow

It's the King's birthday today, and the radio is alive with birthday songs and wishes. As my Arabic teacher said, "the people love their King" (she said that in Arabic! and I understood her! after 3 tries... but still!).

So, despite the fact that Foreign Policy Magazine recently named Jordan one of 5 countries likely to become "the next Tunisias," I think we're safe over here for the time being. My prayers go out to our colleagues in Egypt and Tunisia - I'm guessing the RSO offices over there are dizzyingly busy.

But commenting on political events is far beyond the scope of this blog. Smarter minds than mine are trying to figure out what's going on in the Middle East; I'm just trying to keep my own personal house in order.

So, here's a little story I've been meaning to tell you since October:

I don't cook a lot of meat. But when I make chicken stock, which I do weekly, stray cats converge upon the apartment from every corner of Amman. They sit on the window sills and outer walls, staring in and licking their chops. Many of them are dirty, mangy little things, and I try to ignore their hungry eyes on me as I cook.

But one of them had a plan to get my attention. One day it came limping up on three legs and sat some distance from the other cats, which snarled at it until it slunk away again. It limped back the next day, but it couldn't quite jump up on the sill. I felt sorry for it, so I threw some chicken meat down to it.

The next day it came back. This time it hopped up on the windowsill (Was it cured? Or had it been faking a limp?) and sat there the entire day.

It watched me eat breakfast.

It watched me eat lunch.

It watched me sneak a snack out of the cupboard.

And finally, I just couldn't stand the reproachful gaze it kept on me. So I gave it the rest of the chicken meat.

And with that, the cat decided to stay. I don't even like cats. I pointed out the large dog in my kitchen. The cat just shrugged. I told him I didn't have any cat food. He pointed at the pot on the stove, indicating its contents would suffice. I told him he'd have to get neutered if he wanted to stick around. Still he stuck.

The vet paid a house call. Turns out, the cat, whom we'd nicknamed "Tom," was actually a girl. The vet spayed her right there on my kitchen table (all together now: ewwwwww). We locked her in the dog's crate to recover.

The next day she hopped out the window and ran away. But just for a day. Soon enough, she decided to lick her stitches and forgive us. She hopped back in the window and made herself at home in the crate.

And that is the story of how we adopted a cat - or rather, how a cat adopted us.

It seemed happy with the name Tom, but if it was going to be a girl, it was clearly going to need a new name.

Back when Yogi the dog came into our lives, Aidan was bitterly disappointed that we wouldn't let him name the dog "Peyton Manning." So, in an effort to appease him, I promised to let him name the next animal that came into the house. I figured he'd forget about the promise ten years hence, or whenever the next dog appeared. I didn't figure on getting a cat a few weeks after Yogi moved in. But of course Aidan remembered my promise.

And so: please welcome Kiwi the Cat to this blog.


kitchen surgery:

The dog actually likes the cat:

Kiwi is particularly fond of Shay:

Thursday, January 27, 2011

So, Donna, How's Arabic Class These Days?

I am blessed with a natural, God-given ability to hear a word once, in any language, and repeat it, almost exactly wrong. This is a good skill to have when you are wanting to make the people around you laugh uproariously.

And the people, they do laugh.

Today, for example, I very nearly caused my lovely Arabic teacher to split her sides laughing. There might have been actual tears - of laughter, one hopes, though it is also quite possible she was crying because she's stuck in a small classroom with an idiot like me three times a week when she could be spending her time, oh, I don't know, dragging her nails up and down a chalkboard.

The homework assignment for today: write the names of all of the members of your family, in Arabic letters.

I handed in my paper this morning for the teacher to correct.

I got "Gorman" right (pssst - don't tell - I copied it off of my husband's business cards). Coincidentally, I also spelled his first name right. But my name isn't printed on his business cards for some odd reason. So I had to guess. I did alright, if by alright you mean "got the first letter right." But the second letter, not so much. Nor the third. And the fourth might have been a teensy bit wrong, too. The big problem was with the third letter: the letter "n." Apparently I put the dot underneath the letter instead of on top, rendering my "n" more like a "b."

"Daba?" I said and the teacher laughed. 'Ana ismi Daba!?!" I said, and she laughed again, but at the same time, she told me sternly not to repeat it. Turns out "Donna" is an actual name, but "Daba" is a rude word, which she translated roughly as a work animal - a beast of burden, like a donkey, or a jackass. Which, frankly, seems about right. There I was, proudly stating "My name is Jackass!" Because I'm classy like that.

It was all downhill from there. I'm telling you, who thought it was a good idea to randomly sprinkle dots all over your squiggly lines in order to differentiate the letters? And while we're on the topic of letters, where are all of the vowels? Because it seems to me that every language needs a handy supply of vowels. But no. Not Arabic. They don't have a letter "G," either. They can pronounce my last name, but they have to spell it kind of like "Jorman."

Oh, well. I'll keep trying. And the people around me will keep laughing. But after today, I can proudly say that I know the difference between an Arabic "n" and a "b."

At least I think I do.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Iraq al Ameer and Qasr al Abd

I'm loving my new Mac, but struggling to figure out how to use iPhoto with blogger. I'm sure it'll be great once I get it figured out, but for now, I'm just going to toss some unedited photos up here and see how it goes.

On Saturday we drove west-ish, exploring a little. We drove through Wadi al Seer, which is a really just a suburb of Amman, located to the west of the 8th circle. Another 10 miles or so past that, on a narrow winding road ("I'm gonna be carsick," everyone complained), we arrived at the tiny town of Iraq al Ameer. But still we kept going, for maybe another mile, until the road dead-ended at Qasr al Abd, which I'm told means "Castle of the Slave."

It was built around 200 BC, so it's amazing that it's still there. And it's absolutely in the middle of nowhere - there are guys tending fields and herding goats right alongside it. We were the only tourists there, which meant we got the full attention of the toothless old gatekeeper.

I don't know much about it, but it made for an interesting drive into an area that looks nothing like our part of town, yet is only 30 minutes away.









You know you've been overseas too long...

...when your 7-year-old comes home and asks if he can have sushi rolls in his lunch instead of Oreos, because that's what his friends' mothers always pack for them.

(Bonus points if he says this while eating "foul," a Jordanian dish you only just learned how to prepare.)

(And because I know you're going to ask, foul is pronounced "fool," and it is a fabulously delicious dish made of fava beans, tomato, onion and spices. You're supposed to eat it for breakfast, but for some reason I can't sell the kids on the idea of beans for breakfast. Yet.)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Tiger Mom - The Story Just Won't Die

I've had quite a few people ask me what I think of Amy Chua's WSJ article on what she calls "Chinese" parenting, presumably because I spent three years in Beijing with school-aged kids.

If you haven't read the article, by all means, go read it. It's a fairly horrifying tale written by a woman who refused to allow her children to be less than #1 in any subject in school. They weren't allowed sleepovers, or television time, or any other standard American kid-fare. They weren't, if you believe the article, really allowed any choices at all. She justifies her harsh parenting with the fact that her kids have turned out well. (Although she has backpedalled in interviews since the article first appeared, saying the article, which is taken from her book, doesn't quite reflect her actual ideas. I don't plan to buy the book, so I can't compare the two.)

It didn't make me feel conflicted about my parenting style. No way would I treat my kids in that way - even if I knew for certain that the end result would be a full scholarship to Harvard, or an opportunity to perform at Carnegie Hall, I still wouldn't do it.

I'm more of the parenting school of "benign neglect." I'm trying to give my kids enough space to make their own mistakes, and I try desperately hard not to compare them to other kids. (I try not to compare myself with other parents, either, yet look at me now!)

There were lots of parents like me at our rigorous international school in Beijing, parents who tried to stay involved without crossing the line into anxious hovering. The kids were smart, the curriculum was demanding, and the teachers were, for the most part, excellent, so I felt my role was to cheer from the sidelines. I didn't sit next to them while they did their homework. I didn't volunteer in the classroom every week. I didn't even go on field trips, much as I would've loved it, because it seemed to me (and still does) that they should be finding their way at school without me standing right behind them.

I was told, when I first arrived in Beijing, that many of the Chinese and Korean kids in the school just went there to become proficient in English - they went to their "real" school after our school closed, and they spent evenings and weekends studying while our kids roamed the playground or negotiated sleepover plans.

I didn't believe it at first. But the longer I was there, the more stories I heard from my kids about their classmates, who went to math school at night and got 100% on the pre-tests in math. Whatever. My kids might get only 70% on the pre-tests, but the post-tests, the ones they took after the material was covered, usually showed them performing easily at an "A" level. So I told them not to worry about those other kids. Feel sorry for them, I said, because they have to sit in your math classes all week long, bored, while you're learning something new. They aren't smarter than you - they're just being forced to learn the material in advance, and that doesn't threaten you. As long as you learn it, and succeed on the post-test, that's all that matters.

I actually discussed the tutoring phenomenon with quite a few local educators for an article I wrote on balancing sports and schoolwork. One teacher, also a coach, told me he could tell which kids were being tutored to within an inch of their lives, because they were often unable to make independent decisions. So, for example, during a game of dodgeball, he'd actually have to tell them when to duck, or they'd get pelted by the ball. Yikes. That snippet didn't make it into the final article, but I've never forgotten the image.

My kids can duck.

So, do all Chinese parents parent like Amy Chua? Certainly not. But there was definitely a large sub-set of such parents at our school. Their kids were the ones who disappeared behind closed doors after school while ours hurried to finish up homework so they could play soccer outside. Did their kids do better than mine in school? I have no idea. I'm not in the business of comparing my children to their peers in that way. I know my kids did very well. And that's it.

I did have one opportunity to compare Shay to his peers in the third grade. The kids were given a "shoebox" culture project. They each chose a culture that was important to them, and they created a picture of that culture on their shoebox. Each side of the box was to represent one facet of the culture: music, sports, history, etc., and inside they were to place "artifacts" of that culture. And after they finished the project, they had to present it to a group of their peers and the parents.

Shay chose Ireland because of his dad's heritage. I knew that much, but he was emphatic that he didn't want my help. He pulled pictures off the internet and glued little facts to the sides of the box. Every so often, he'd ask how to spell something, or he'd ask for extra pencils, or a straightedge, but for the most part he hid from view for weeks while working on his shoebox.

I was nervous. I knew he was going to present the box, and I was a little bit worried that he'd embarrass me somehow by turning in a second-rate project. But he made his wishes clear, and since it was obvious that he was working on the project, I stayed away.

Finally the big day came. The kids were separated into groups of 5 or 6 to do their presentations. Our group was a mix of foreigners and locals. One of the first kids to present was a Chinese girl. She reached into her shoebox and pulled out a thick set of laminated index cards, each covered in her neat, tiny script. There must've been 50 cards, dangling from a large round key fob, and inwardly I groaned when she started reading them. The kids were supposed to have less than 10 minutes each - was she really going to try to read every single one of those cards?

She had barely started when her mother interrupted, telling her in Chinese to speak up. The girl started over, only to be scolded again: speak up. Instead of speaking louder, the girl turned red and began to whisper. Her mom let her have it this time. I couldn't catch every word of the lecture, but she was angry. She was telling her daughter to stand up straight and speak clearly, and every time the girl tried to start again, the mom interrupted to scold. Finally the girl started arguing with her mom, waving her cards and saying she was trying. This went on for a good 5 minutes, with all the rest of the parents sitting awkwardly, feeling sorry for the girl. Another Chinese parent tried to intervene, but when she told the first mom that her daughter was doing fine, the mom waved her hand dismissively at the daughter and turned her back in disgust. She turned her back on her own daughter, and the girl just stood there quietly, face burning as she looked down at her index cards, not knowing what to do.

All of this commotion caught the attention of the teacher, who'd been moving amongst the groups. She came over and gave the girl a hug, standing between the girl and the now livid parent, who would not stop complaining loudly about her daughter's poor performance. The girl's time was up, and despite how hard she'd clearly worked on her project, she wasn't going to get a chance to present it.

Meanwhile, the rest of the kids sat, open-mouthed, watching the mom and the daughter fight it out while the teacher did her best to provide a physical barrier for the girl. It was just... so sad. Our role there that day, as I saw it, was to watch our kids present and then congratulate them for having the courage to stand up in front of their peers, and for having the perseverance to finish the project. Clearly that mom saw things differently.

If you put her shoebox next to my son's, I daresay it would have been voted the more elegant of the two. His box showed no signs of parental interference. But do you know? He did a great job. He talked for the allotted time about Irish sports and music. He told the story of Saint Patrick. And he showed his classmates a picture of his great grandfather, along with that grandfather's watch, to illustrate his connection to the culture.

He did it all by himself, and I was so, so proud of him.

I'd venture to say this other mom was of the Amy Chua school of parenting. Maybe it works for her, though it certainly backfired on that warm spring day. Maybe some kids respond well to the structure, to the commands from on high to succeed. I know my kids wouldn't do well with that system, though, and neither would I.

Would I love to see them win a scholarship to a prestigious university some day? Of course. Do I wish they were more interested in their music lessons? Definitely. But all four of them have their own distinct personalities, their own interests, and their own ways of working. I guess I think it's my job to nurture those differences in abilities and interests, rather than forcing them into my mold of success. I'm not interested in parenting like Chua. I'm not a helicopter parent, either. I'm a traffic cop parent: I'm there, watching for trouble, but as long as they're moving forward and generally following the rules, I'm not going to intervene.

I think there's a skill I'm trying to acquire here. I'm trying to be the parent who supports, who encourages, and who gets out of the way when I'm not needed. Sure, I remind them to put their homework folders in their backpacks on occasion. But I won't do it for them - don't want to helicopter. And no - they can't watch TV if the haven't done their homework. But I don't check their homework over their shoulders, and I don't make them do extra work on top of what the teacher assigns. When they finish their work, they choose what's next.

It's tricky, when you move from place to place, because parenting standards change as you go, as do the schooling standards. Our school in Jordan is quite a bit different from the school in Beijing. The local parents are different, too. Even the expat community is different. My kids are being forced to negotiate an entirely different learning environment, with different rules and expectations. Some aspects of this new place they love. Others they rail against, constantly. My hope is that, in the end, the changes they undergo as we move will mold them into interesting adults, with something positive to contribute in whatever professional fields they choose. That, I think, is far more important than whether they beat their other classmates on any particular science test.

I'm sure Chua-style parents also want what's best for their kids. I can't say "Chinese" style, sorry, because I know too many Chinese who don't parent like Chua does, and while I understand that she didn't intend to lump all Chinese under the label "Chinese" parent, still I can't bring myself to use her term. So: Chua-style parents are trying their best to parent, just as I am. But they use very different methods to achieve their goals.

This much I know: I don't ever, ever want to be that mother, the one who turns her back on her own child because the child didn't meet her standards. There is no school assignment that can possibly matter that much to me.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Go, Team, Go (Beep beep)!

All evening long I heard shouting and honking and - yes - even gunfire. When I went to the Embassy to pick up Bart, there were men running in the streets with Jordanian flags, shouting in Arabic. Cars were blaring horns as they paraded through traffic circles.

It was all quite alarming until I discovered the reason for the chaos: apparently, Jordan just beat Syria in a big soccer match.

Go Jordan! I might've considered joining the revelers but I draw the line at random celebratory gunfire.

Hey! Speaking of celebratory gunfire, did you notice this is my 500th post on this here blog? Go me! Feel free to honk your horn loudly or discharge a weapon in celebration. Or, you know, just leave a congratulatory comment. Whichever suits your mood.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Of Riots and Ricotta

Posting has been sparse these days. I've been giving myself a bit of a blogging/FB break. Problem is, as soon as I decide to take a break, I think of all of these things I need to say first. I've been mostly ignoring myself lately, hence the dearth of posts. We just started learning the Arabic alphabet last week, and believe me when I say that has given me plenty to focus on. I'm finally starting to feel settled, as in: have friends, have routine, have a favorite store, have too many errands to finish on any given day. Settled. Apparently I live here.

An Embassy-wide notice went out warning of widespread demonstrations that had the potential to turn violent on Friday. Which can only mean one thing: the Gormans have scheduled a dinner party. Nothing like organizing a dinner party while wondering if your husband and his 20-ish guests will even be able to attend.

But attend they did. The demonstrations were peaceful and everyone made it to our house for dinner. I made lasagna (Shannon, I used your recipe for homemade ricotta and it was the best lasagna I've ever made). Also made gnocchi (my Nona taught me how), chicken and peppers, rolls, salad and fruit salad. Oh, and coconut truffles for dessert. I was a cooking machine. For the first time since we've been here, I hired someone to come in and help with the clean-up. Why didn't I do that before? Dinner parties are so much more fun when you aren't faced with a chin-high pile of dirty dishes at 11 p.m.

In the States, I wouldn't even have the option of hiring someone to help with clean-up. But before y'all get too jealous, remember this: in the States, you can buy ricotta, right there there at the grocery store. As much as you need, without breaking the bank. You can buy pre-washed lettuce-in-a-bag. You can cut up a Costco chicken, put it on a fancy platter, and voila: a main course. Oh, and you don't have to go to a separate store to buy your alcohol. It's all there, in one giant store (Wegman's, how I miss thee). Then there's the little matter of the garbage disposal and dishwasher, both of which live in our tiny Virginia townhouse. Here: no dishwasher. No garbage disposal. Party prep and clean-up are both more difficult overseas.

Not that I'm complaining. I like cooking, and I like entertaining - it's fun to see people enjoying something you've taken the time to make for them. And it's more fun now that I know most of the people who are coming over (the first few parties were more stressful because I didn't know anyone).

Today, though, I need a break. The leftover gnocchi will suffice for our family dinner.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

In Case My Parents Are Worrying About Their No-Good Son-in-Law's Career

This plaque lives on a wall here in Amman.

(and yes, Pop, you can tell everyone it's actually you).



Monday, January 3, 2011

Aqaba



Oh, it was fabulous.

If I had a million dollars and a private plane, I'd go there every weekend.

It's about a 4-hour drive from our house to the Movenpick Tala Bay, just south of Aqaba. Incidentally, for you geography buffs out there, we were a few kilometers north of Saudi Arabia - we could've walked to the border. Across the water we could see Egypt and Israel. Shay thought that was pretty cool. (Go to the hotel website and you can see a map of just where we were.)

The drive down was boring until the last hour-ish, when we descended into canyons that were just - words fail - stunning. Efficient packer that I am, I'd packed the camera in the back of the car. So no pictures of that. But it makes me excited to see Wadi Rum, which is somewhere in those canyons. (On the return trip, we went a different way, along the Israeli border and next to the Dead Sea. Even more beautiful, looking down at the turquoise waters of the Dead Sea - and again, no camera.)

We spent no time at all in the town of Aqaba, unless you count driving through it on our way to the resort. The town looked interesting, but there was a beach calling our name just down the road.

It was a really nice resort. Lots of pools, though only one is heated, so that's where we spent most of our water time. Kyra swam back and forth, back and forth. It was scary, as she's a self-taught swimmer, and I kept expecting her to go under from exhaustion. The heated pool is not shallow. At one point, after her umpteenth lap across, she took a deep gasping breath and said "I definitely need to take some swim lessons." Yes, Kyra: this summer you most certainly will.

Aidan loved the gigantic waterslide. It was two or three stories tall, and despite the fact that it dumped into one of the cold pools, we couldn't keep him off of it.

Shay would probably tell you that his favorite part was tossing the football with his dad out on the sandy beach. Or maybe it was the pizza delivered poolside for lunch.

Ainsley had a blast digging on the beach, and all of the kids loved running on the floating dock, which was quite bumpy because of all of the waves.

Personally, I loved that moment when the waiter came up to me while I was sitting under an umbrella on the beach and asked what I would like to drink. Dang if that latte wasn't delicious.

The only downside was that it was phenomenally expensive. We needed two rooms because of our gigantic family, so even at the government rate that was a lot of cash. And the food was expensive, too. We spent more on one dinner at the buffet - about $140 - than we did on one hotel room, and that's with the two youngest eating for free. Aqaba will be one of those places we'll save up our pennies for, so we can go a few more times while we're here.






Kyra was afraid of the extremely wobbly dock. So was Aidan. So they held hands and made it safely back to shore.


That's Egypt behind us...








loved these signs along the way:


the amazing waterslide:


There is a similar picture in my parents' albums, of my angelic baby sister smiling for the camera while I just looked pissed. So this cracked me up:






Please. Write your own stuff.