Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Week My Daughter Become Chinese

Over the years, I had tried everything. I had enrolled her in language classes. I had bought her books. I had chaired committees, attended culture camps and written articles. In the course of fifteen years, none of those things had encouraged Emma’s slightest interest in the country, language or customs of China. But after nine days with a 16-year-old from Nanjing, she was practically a native.

Perhaps the timing was right. Perhaps the teenagers in the visiting group were welcoming. It helped that the girl we hosted at our house was pretty, smart and sweet. It especially helped that she was willing to serve as Emma’s model for hair curling and nail polishing, things that are forbidden (along with pierced ear and sandals) at her school back home.

Whatever the unique convergence of factors, Emma suddenly woke up one day last week, looked in a mirror, and decided that not only was she Chinese, but she loved everything about China.

This was the last thing I would have expected, based on her attitude before the group’s arrival. She had wondered how anyone who didn't use Facebook could be any fun at all.  She was shocked when I told her that all the kids who arrived would think that their country was actually better than ours.  Huh?
Then the group arrived. In some ways, they were so different from the U.S. kids. Even the thinnest of our children seemed to carry a layer of something extra on their frames – maybe fat, or muscle, or just a thick coating of Dorito dust. In any event, these Chinese kids looked skinny enough to be clearly not American. In other ways, though, they were just a bunch of tech-savvy teenagers. The first tentative signs of friendship involved the sharing of small technical devices. Soon, everyone was taking pictures on everyone else’s cell and camera, the lens just inches from their faces, peace signs being made all around.

Emma loved our student and she loved the group. As the days of the visit went by, she slowly changed from a USA-firster to a willing disciple of all things Chinese. She asked a lot of questions. She signed onto RenRen, the Chinese version of Facebook, and friended all the kids from the group. Her big eye opener was a trip to the Mall of America, when she tagged along on the group’s outing and saw her country from someone else’s eyes. They stopped at the Cold Stone Creamery and ordered ice cream cones. The gargantuan portions boggled their minds. “This would be four portions in China!” they marveled. Emma’s response was to immediately ask them how to say “fat” in Chinese, an insult she stockpiled along with “ugly, fat, mouselike, dirty pervert,” “strange,” and two different ways to say “ugly.”

I heard from the group’s leaders that, while many of the other U.S. kids were clearly uncomfortable at the disadvantage of being in a language minority, Emma just plunged in and tried to figure it out for herself. When things got quiet, she could always pull out her camera and take a few hundred more close-ups.

I have no idea what the impact of this past week will be, but I imagine it’s significant for her. She wants us to host more students. She wants to spend junior year of high schoool in China. She wants a friend in every country, she says, “So that if the United States disappears, I’ll have a place to stay.” She’s updated her passport and declared her intention to fill every page.

As she waved goodbye to the group as their bus pulled away toward the airport, she had a couple regrets, she told me. First, she wished she were on the bus with her new friends. And second, she wished she had learned how to say “fart” in Chinese.

Here is the letter I wrote to the parents of our host student:

Dear Du Ping and Hou Xiangdong,

Thank you so much for sharing your beautiful daughter with us for the week. She was a respectful, obedient and charming houseguest. She must study very hard, because she is an excellent English speaker. We enjoyed her company very much. She shared many stories of her happy home life and told us interesting things about China. We tried to make her feel comfortable, and she did very well in adapting to such a different place, with its endless parade of fat people and large servings of bad food. To make matters even more challenging, the weather was very hot when she was here, but she was very good natured about that. I made her some pork and cabbage dumplings, and she politely told me they were tasty, but I am sure that they were not at all as good as those she shares with her family at New Year. When she told me about celebrating that holiday, and about hiding a coin in the one of the dumplings, I could tell that it is a very happy time for her.

Most especially, I must thank you for the way your daughter completed a very important job, that of ambassador from China to a citizen who left its borders more than fifteen years ago. Thanks to her patience, kindness and good example, I believe that she helped our oldest daughter, Emma, make a strong reconnection to her native land. Emma was abandoned as an infant, and was adopted by us from the Wuhan Foundling Hospital when she was four months old. She is a strong and intelligent girl, and we love her very much. We have always tried to create in her a love for China, and we have taken her to classes, events and culture camps to help her understand the importance of her heritage. But always, she seemed more interested in sports or friends or schools, and not so much in being Chinese-American.

When she met Hou Yunan, she encountered someone who was beautiful and smart and strong, and it was clear that she had begun to think more favorably of the Chinese people. She spent a great deal of time with the students in the group: playing mah johng, visiting the Mall of America, going on a riverboat ride and attending a women’s basketball game. She began to see what a great thing it is to be Chinese. She loved just being around the students, she told me, even though she could not understand what they were saying. I believe that she felt at home with them, in a way she has never been before.

What a gift to start this spark of interest in someone. Who knows where it will lead? Emma is a different and more complete person because of what your daughter has shared this week. Hou Yunan  is a wonderful girl. Again, thank you.

Monday, July 12, 2010

My Dog Spot

I’ve always been skeptical of those financial articles that estimate how much it costs to raise a child. I wonder if they’ve really thought through everything that ends up getting purchased over a parenting lifetime. For example, does this estimate include batteries or Band-Aids? Those items have separate lines items on the budget around here. What about Barbies? With or without Dream Houses? And birthday party gifts? That’s another thousand or two right there, even if you don’t pay the extra dollar for the Creative Kidstuff giftwrap.

Looking back at the outlay over the past fifteen years, it’s easy to identify the biggest and most wasted expense. Lessons. Any parent of modest financial means knows how hard it is to say no to the little darling who suddenly must have guitar lessons, or karate lessons, or ice skating lessons, or whatever. Equipment is bought, class times are written on the calendar, and the long trudge to mediocrity begins, enlivened only by the inevitable team “banquet” (there’s a misnomer for you) or interminable recital. I’ve sat outside countless practice studios and athletic fields in my day, hours ticking by and my butt spreading on the plastic seating, while my children engaged in pursuits in which they never, even after years of practice, demonstrated even a minimal level of proficiency.

In other words: The lessons were paid for, but nobody learned anything.

Which is why I was numb to the whole process by the time Mary Katherine declared that private voice lessons were going to be in order, and soon. True, she’s been singing, pretty much nonstop, since she arrived on planet Earth for her current incarnation. Each morning her little infant pipes would greet the dawn with a set of sweet warbles. When she could walk, she realized that a half step up to the dining room was, in fact, a stage, and she began to mount an unending series of productions that might best be called simply “Mary Katherine! The Musical.”

I’d grown so used to hearing her singing voice that I realized I was unable to form an opinion about its quality. It was just part of the whole Mary Katherine Package, and I’d never thought to consider that it be an actual talent, let alone one that required private lessons.

So she started working with a voice teacher.

And it worked.

The first inkling came about a month after she started taking lessons. We were all hanging out and doing homework when she began to sing something called “Beautiful Candy.” But, like, she really sang it. With volume and diction and the whole works. Emma and I stared at each other in amazement. Could Mary Katherine actually be, well, talented?

She kept up with the weekly lessons, and she kept getting better. After years of watching my children’s progress charts consist solely of flatlines, I began to see an upward trajectory, with each week bringing a new level of achievement.

Hold on, there, cowgirl, I told myself. There’s still the recital to be gotten through. Sure, she sounds great in the kitchen, but put her in front of an audience and she could start honking like a goose. I decided to reserve judgment (a new thing for me; it was kind of fun, really).

Recital day dawned and we gathered at the studio. Emma, who maintains a primary residence in Sporty World, gaped at the assembled performers as if they were from another planet. When a teacher suggested to the singers that they step into a private room to start “vocalizing,” Emma turned to me for a translation. “It’s like warming up before the game, doing some stretches and drooling.”

Long stare. “It’s ‘dribbling,’ Mom, not ‘drooling.’”

I went back to my crossword puzzle.

We filed in. The first singers grimly made it to the last bar of their songs, dignity relatively intact. Then it was time for Mary Katherine’s first number, “Now is the Month of May.” Old, English, heavy on the fa la las. Halfway through, it was clear that she had forgotten all the words to the next verse. Without skipping a beat, she filled the vacuum with a megawatt smile and an endearing little shrug. The kid did everything but wink. The audience chuckled. She finished. Not bad, I thought.

More singers. Her next song. She positioned herself in front of the crowd and, before giving her starting nod to the pianist, she did that smile thing again, giving the crowd a look that managed to be confident, funny and endearing, all at once. It seemed to say, “I’ll probably forget some lyrics this time too, but don’t worry, we’ll have fun together.”

“My Dog Spot” is not generally what you’d generally call a crowd-pleaser, but she killed with it. Suddenly I was seeing little gestures and shoulder wiggles that I’d never seen before. She must have picked them up in her former life as a Big Band singer. She seemed to be having so much fun, and, by the end of that silly little tune, so were we.

She had two more numbers after that, and each time she came up, you could feel the crowd collectively moving forward in their seats. They loved her. I thought about that. Other people loved her, not just her relatives. The best part, for me, was that all the things I had seen over the years, all the joy and goodness that radiated from this little person, were clearly available for others to appreciate. It seems to be an immutable law of the universe that You Can’t Not Love Mary Katherine, and the crowd was ready to obey.

When the recital was over, I was speechless, which is not my usual state of being. But all I could do was hold her close and kiss the top of her head and whisper, “good job” in her ear.

I had, finally, gotten my money’s worth.

Friday, July 9, 2010

One Word or Less

Watching Olivia’s face on Wednesday night was like seeking a Shakespearean drama unfold, right across the limited real estate of her 11-year-old forehead.  “ONE word to describe them?” she stalled, repeating the question and looking around at our family.  “Well … "

The backstory:  We were being visited by a representative from AFS to check our suitability to be a host family.  This is Emma’s latest passion, fueled by a friendship with an Armenian kid and a desire to 1) have a brother and 2) live with someone more interesting than her father, mother and sister. The lady with the clipboard had shown up, and Olivia, who was hanging around with Mary, joined the group.

There have been so many moments of our lives that Olivia has shared with our family, and that makes me very happy. She has been Mary Katherine’s best friend since they could run through the alley to each other’s houses. She is the first one on the list for my long-running “more the merrier” policy, and I am always happy when I can snag an extra ticket or pull some strings somewhere to get her included in something fun that we have planned.

I understand Olivia, deeply. With birthdays one week apart, we share the same astrological sign, appreciation of cleaned-out closets and love of crossing things off lists. We also share a lifeview that could be summed up as, “it’s always a good idea to worry just a little bit more.” I often know what Olivia is thinking, and it’s usually because I’m thinking the same thing:  “uh oh, I’m worried about this.”

She and Mary Katherine are so happy together, that their mutual comfort in each other’s society is always cheering to me. One of my favorite memories ever was a road trip we took a few years ago to pick Emma up after a camp. Olivia and Mary Katherine were still young enough to be excited by the thrilling prospect of staying in a hotel, and they immediately started jumping on the beds when they arrived.  Bounce, bounce, bounce … Olivia had no agenda, no expectations and no disappointments – just some up-and-down time with her best friend. I happened to snap a picture of that moment, and it’s a photograph I cherish. Being weightless is not something that people like Olivia and I experience very often, so those moments need to be savored when they come along.

With all my great affection for this girl, you’d assume that she feels the same way about me. Not so much, really. It’s not that she dislikes me; she just is a little …  disapproving. I often find myself double-checking plans or calling ahead to a reservation desk, doing whatever I need to do to make sure I don’t disappoint Olivia. She doesn’t ask for much, just that I will be able to tell her what is going to happen every minute, and that there will be no disasters or troubles anywhere. To my own children, I offer a hearty “get over it” when things don’t turn out the way they’d wish, but I find myself straining to make the grade with Olivia. And my grade, for 11 years, is pretty much a C+.

Yes, she thinks I’m barely functioning and not often worthy of the description “adult,” but she’s often right, and I am not one to argue with the truth. She figured out when she was four that I shouldn’t be allowed to drive a car, and I suspect her of sneaking in and double-checking to make sure I’ve turned off the stove when I leave the kitchen. I am just a little too goofy for my own good, and while Olivia never says that in so many words, she can communicate quite a bit with a tiny sigh and a lowered gaze. Oh Olivia, I’ll do better next time, I swear.

So there I was Wednesday night, sitting across from her on the couch when the AFS rep asked, “If you could use one word to describe this family, Olivia, what would it be? I saw it on her face, of course. I am guessing that the first word that popped into her head was “psychotic,” or something close to it. (And she’s very, very smart, so don’t think she doesn’t know what that means.) It’s my insider’s opinion that she also wrestled with “goofy,” “improbable” and perhaps, when considering me, “disappointing.”

She repeated the question, took a deep breath, and spoke her truth, if perhaps an edited version of it. “Upbeat!” she declared, and she even smiled.  Right at me.  Thanks, Olivia Louise.  I love you, too.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

A Yogini's Plea: 86 the 3-2-1

Because I would always rather concentrate on something ELSE in yoga class (and anything is usually preferable to thinking about how much I hate side-angle pose), I listen very carefully to my teachers’ vocabulary. I’m a word person, and I pay attention to exactly what people are saying, perhaps just a bit too much.

Lately, I’ve noticed a new phrase cropping up all over town. Whether I’m practicing with 150 of my closest friends at Lake Calhoun or wilting on the pool deck with the other mommies at the Y, I am hearing it with increasing frequency.

The phrase is the yogic equivalent of foreshadowing, and it involves the teacher leading the class into an especially taxing contortion and then flicking a drop of ice water into our mutual hell-on-mat by intoning, “we’ll be holding for three … two … moving into side plank in one … ONE.”

I hear “3-2-1” these days even more than other yogic clich├ęs such as “take the biggest breath you’ve taken all day.” In fact, it’s far eclipsed such gems as “liberate your kidneys!” and “tighten that sphincter!”

Do I like it? No, Sam I Am, I do not like that three-two-one. It’s required several classes for me to figure out why, though, but the biggest reason is that 3-2-1 is a major in-the-moment killer. If I’m supposed to BE on my mat and BE in the pose, why are you telling me how soon I’ll stop being there? I remember my very first yoga classes with the Incredible Andrea Dishong, who would twist a class into a pose and then saunter over to begin a long workshop with one student on, say, optimum foot placement in Warrior One. In those early days, when I never went to class without falling over at least once, I would fell the panic right away: “Doesn’t she know we’re here?” I’d think to myself. “I am going to DIE in this pose before she remembers!”

Andrea, who insisted that yoga was about finding calm in chaos, remained capricious with hold times and revealed nothing about what was ahead. She was the chaos provider, not the helpful-hint giver. At the time I hated her, and now I worship her. This is not an Ashram-version of Stockholm Syndrome, but an indicator of her great influence on a new yogini. Sometimes we held a pose for a very long time. Sometimes one side was five times as long as the other, because that guy on the purple mat just could not figure out what she meant when she said, “Widen your stance.” Andrea had a Whitmanesque love of contradicting herself, and she was the queen of chaos.

She was right, and here’s why. Nothing happens in yoga that doesn’t have a lesson for me about my own life. As I hear those 3-2-1 teachers letting me know all about what is going to happen next, and as I watch a significant portion of the class jumping into the next pose before they’ve really been in the current one, I realize that there is not one experience in my life in which advance warning would have helped me out. It’s not exactly been 50 years of ponies-for-my-birthday and surprise parties, but there have been genuine pleasures along the way. I’m glad that I never knew about the next crisis that was brewing, and I’m equally grateful that I never had a heads-up about the small pleasures that lay just ahead on my path – the random times when I got to sit quietly in someplace beautiful, or the very few moments I could share with a much-missed friend who lifted my spirit.

You don’t need to tell me what’s next. I’m a full-chaos yoga girl, and I’m proud of it. Thanks, Andrea.