Monday, January 16, 2012

Pink Ostriches for Lunch

I can’t imagine inviting a group of giant-sized, round-eyed monsters for Christmas Eve lunch, but Emma’s host parents are made of tougher stuff than I, God bless them. We were nothing but trouble from the start.  Emma took an exit at the subway that left her utterly lost. First, she tried some fruitless consultation with a couple of cab drivers, who kept sneaking glances at the four white people with her, as if she were a keeper taking us to an audition at the Beijing Circus. (“It’s going to be hard to go back to just being normal looking, after being a hideous eyesore for two weeks,” Mary Katherine observed wryly one morning on the subway, deflecting the stares of horror that were flitting across the faces of our fellow passengers.) The cab drivers were too gobsmacked to help, so Emma resorted to a couple cryptic calls to her host mom.

We arrive half an hour late, stiff-faced and cold from our now-daily lost-getting exercise. Plus, we’d passed a giant and garish Puppet Theater on our endless walk, and Mary Katherine is worried someone was going to make her see a puppet show, so anxiety levels are high. We fill up the apartment with our puffy coats, our puffy selves and our chatter.

Emma’s host parents had set bowls of oranges and nuts on the coffee table, have tea ready to pour, and are working in the kitchen on preparing tray after tray of perfectly formed dumplings. The television is turned to an English language station. The statues of Stalin and Mao gleam on the shelf, ready for inspection. 

Then I look into the eyes of Emma’s host mom, and take the first deep breath since she left home in September. This woman is happy to see us, or at least is doing a great job of pretending, and she and her husband welcome us warmly. Her graciousness calms us, so of course we move to the couch and begin tossing back snacks right away.

I’ve prepared many meals for guests in my life, so I had a good basic idea of the to-do lists they’d been managing in the moments leading up to this one, starting with waking up early on Saturday morning and realizing with a thud that this day was going to be a long one. Out of bed, get things going, and get to the market before they run out of the good stuff.  Back to the market for that one thing we forgot. Apartment cleaning. Clutter removal. Knick-knack rearrangement. Bathroom check.

Then, the pre-party existential angst that Zora O’Neill and Tamara Reynolds, who run an underground supper club in New York, call “The Hour of Self-Loathing:” Why am I doing this? Who are these people and why have I asked them to my house? I have better things to do with my time than worry about them. Nobody better ask for decaf, that’s all I’m saying. I had to believe  that Emma’s host mom had been wishing she could take a nap instead of making forced conversation with the Large Family, party of five.

It was clear that they had already been working all morning. Dad was rolling out dumpling skins with a miniature rolling pin, tossing them into a pile at a rapid rate and engaging in some good-natured ribbing with the mom about which of them was the better dumpling roller. It wasn’t until the following week, when l I took a dumpling-making class at the China Culture Center, that I would learn how hard it was to create that perfectly thin surface and uniformly circular shape. A couple bowls of fillings were set up, and I think they were pleased when we asked to help with filling. Our efforts were lumpy and misshapen, but we were assured they’d taste just as good.


They have prepared hot pot for us, which Emma tells us is a purely special occasion food. Then they serve those incredible dumplings, being sure to provide soy sauce for Mary Katherine and Olivia. (Vinegar is the correct dipping choice, but Emma had warned them.) Emma grew pensive. “I sat right here and ate dumplings the night I arrived. I was really late, but my host mom sat up with me, and she just kept making them until I was so full that I went to bed.”

Before she left home last summer, I had a secret wish for the sort of host parents who would be perfect for Emma. I imagined a pair of Chinese tigers, ready to discipline all of those soft, American tendencies. Instead, with Emma’s usual luck, she’d found herself with kind-faced, kind-eyed people who met her with open arms, open hearts and a platter of dumplings.

Meal finished, we announce our next plan for the day, a visit the Olympic village, which is nearby.  There is a quiet conversation between the parents in which I understand the dad to be proposing to drive us in his car. After a quick assessment of our massive volume,  I sense encroaching panic, so I propose the bus, instead.  Relieved, Emma’s host mom offers to walk us there. Winding through the neighborhood, we generate astounded stares, as if she is taking her herd of pink ostriches for an afternoon stroll. Waiting for the bus and chatting, I take the opportunity to look carefully at her soft, smooth face and into her lively, kind eyes.

I remember more kindnesses that Emma has mentioned in passing remarks, in between plot summaries of pirated movies, debates on communism vs. capitalism and detailed descriptions of her plan for world domination. A few weeks before, for example, Emma had been very anxious about a speech she had to give, in Chinese, to the entire school. After it was all over and we were Skyping, she tossed off a remark that her host mom thought she had done very well. “Wait a minute. That woman bicycled twenty minutes in awful traffic to come see you give a speech, in Chinese, on the weather in Minnesota?”

The “duh” that followed this question could be expected. To Emma, that’s just the way things are. To me, it’s a marvel, one more example of how this little orphan girl seems to have an astonishing ability to find herself a safe harbor, no matter where she lands.

So there I was at the bus stop, with the woman who had just walked me through her neighborhood. She was probably thinking about what she'd tell everyone tomorrow, when they asked. I knew other things about her:  she did Emma’s laundry every day and hung it in the meager sunshine to dry. After yet another near-miss biking accident from my daredevil daughter, she had arranged a neighborly swap of Emma’s flimsy bike for one she thought might be sturdier.

And she invited all of us over to her house on a Saturday afternoon.

Standing at the bus stop, I suddenly remembered another set of eyes that reminded me of hers. I looked into them as I sat in a van in the parking lot of a Wuhan Foundling Hospital on a hot June day sixteen years ago, holding my new daughter on my lap. Emma's foster mom, who had been caring for her these past four months, came to the back of the idling car and looked in the window at me. We had no words, just our eyes, and we spent several long moments just looking at each other.

Sometimes all you can do is love a child for as long as you can.  Then you have to let go and allow someone else to take over the job.  But you do what you can. You look in her eyes.

The bus arrives, packed as full as every mode of transportation in this oversized city, and we scramble on to find our places. I turn back for one more look, one more thank you, and then I’m off to the rest of my Christmas Eve.

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