Sunday, September 25, 2011

Open Freezer, Insert Webcam

“I just want to see the whole big tub of it,” Emma said to me, via Skype, and who was I to deny her? I opened the freezer and showed her the to-the-brim result of the ice maker’s overnight work. I lifted up a few choice specimens for a close-up, and I swear I heard a little whimper from her end of the line.

Of course she loves ice. She’s been living in the U.S., originator of the sort of hyper-chilled excess that leads to the brain freeze, for sixteen years. Now, back home in China, my daughter is finding that people who do not balk at consuming double-boiled deer penises generally think that too much ice is disgusting. Why put two cubes in a drink when one will do? Or what about having that Coke at a yummy room temperature? It’s a pause that refreshes without creating any chilly yin/yang imbalance.

After a couple weeks in Beijing, Emma is getting enough distance to be able to miss things from home, and it’s fascinating (to me, anyway) to hear about her highly specific longings. Besides the ice demonstrations, she also wanted a view inside our refrigerator, where the cups of chocolate pudding made her dreamy. “Chocolate,” she sighed, and I reminded her that a country without a love of chocolate is a country without frightening obesity statistics. Then she demanded a walk outside to see the greenness that is the overgrown, sunflower-crazy front yard. The morning joggers might have wondered why I was walking around in my pjs, holding a laptop and narrating, “Here’s the cherry tree,” but they feigned indifference until they could get out of sight and call 911, I suppose.

After that phone call, I decided to see how things worked in the west-to-east homesickness department. I asked our friend Yue Wang, a Macalester college student from China, what thing from home she misses most. She said she missed something called tangyuan, but that she’d recently learned to cook it for her friends and offered to cook it for me sometime. First I accepted (I’ll try anything once, even Ecuadorian fried ants, but that’s another story). Then I did some research and discovered that tangyuan is … glutinous rice balls

Lest you feel unimpressed, there’s more. These glutinous balls are served in … a sweet broth, so that must make the difference. From what I saw on the web, it didn’t really look like a dish that had enough personality to cause anyone to lie awake at night, wishing she could see even a Skype transmission of them. 

When I thought about it, though, I realized that I’ve got a kid who’s homesick right now for frozen chunks of water. The heart wants what it wants, to quote Mr. W. Allen (by way of Pascal), and I suppose the tastebuds should have the same basic rights. 

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Detained, not Arrested (There’s a Big Difference, Mom)

I have to confess that I feel a little sorry for the People’s Republic of China.  They exported their single greatest source of energy sixteen years ago. Now she’s back, roaming around Beijing, dressed in a geeky school uniform and armed with a camera, her mind and her mouth.

Her first little spot of trouble occurred when she and her pal Max Fong (of the Nob Hill Fongs) decided to take a stroll around the neighborhood.  They came across an official-looking building, one which Emma must have decided would make the perfect profile picture on the Facebook page she’s still managing to maintain. (Illegal in China, but that hasn't stopped her.)

“It was all going great until the guys with the guns showed up,” she reported.

That’s not the sort of phrase one wants to hear from one’s daughter, but I suppose there are worse ones, and I’ll try not to think of those right now.  Anyway, here are Max and Emma being interrogated, and here is Max doing his best to get them out, and here is Emma Losing Her Mind because she does not know what is going on. She always knows what is going on, even when she doesn’t.

Turns out that, while Max is fluent in Chinese, he’s not fluent in the sort of Chinese the guards are currently shouting at him. His parents don’t speak the language at home, but his grannies do. This explains a lot. I am guessing that Max’s vocabulary might be limited to words and phrases such as “Have some more,” “You look skinny,” “How are your grades?” and “You are the sweetest boy in the whole world, come give your granny a kiss.” He is probably less familiar with terms such as “Restricted access,” “Positively no photography,” “What are you, a dumbass American?  We said No Photography” and “We have big guns and you don’t, kids.”

This all happened twelve hours after she’d arrived back in her homeland. Just saying.

Finally, Max was able to extricate the two of them from the situation, possibly by telling the guards that they were the sweetest boys in the world and that they should come give him a kiss. The guards erased everything on Emma’s camera (if they had ever wondered how many photos of yourself you can take from arm’s length, crooking your head to one side as if your neck is broken and sticking your tongue out, and they discovered the answer – a lot). She left the situation with her dignity mussed and her outrage intact. “You can take pictures anywhere you want in America,” she said, sounding suspiciously as if she were debating at the Ronald Reagan Library with the rest of the Repub-la-goons.

You’re not in America anymore, toots?  Yeah, we said it, but it didn’t take.  In her view, she’s the sole citizen of the Empire of Emma, no passport required.

So, while they are having high-level meetings in Beijing to discuss how guys with guns can handle a teen with attitude, Emma continues to explore the place she left fifteen years and six months ago.  She saw a guy peeing on the street. She’s already developed a theory that you need to be at least the third person to step across the curb into traffic, because the first two are likely to get hit.

And, so far, she still understands the important difference between detention and arrest.

Good luck, comrades.

Monday, September 5, 2011

What's Next

An entire day at the zoo, in August. A long walk to the playground, followed by a visit to the ice cream shop. Going to see Santa. It never mattered what the activity was. The one constant was that as soon as the key turned in the lock, as soon as the backpacks and the purses and the sticky bags of leftover cotton candy were laid down, while the shoes were being slipped off and plans were being made for supper and bath, Emma would ask: “What’s Next?” 

There are lifetimes of accusations in those two words. “What else do you have?” was a large portion of the meaning, pointing the way to the inadequacy of what had been offered and rendering the swift judgment that if you thought that was going to be enough to entertain a person of her caliber on a sunny day or a spring break or a Christmas holiday, then you had better reach a little deeper into your bag of tricks, no matter how close it was to bedtime.

The question also signaled the aching desire to be anywhere but here, in this insufficient home with this falling-short family. What’s Next could be across the alley in the Shangri-La of the Brimacomb’s house, or with her boyfriend’s family, or in Beijing. What it most certainly is not, is here. Or now. 

In the years I’ve been her mother, I’ve moved from being an older mom to becoming, in a number of ways, a truly old one. “You looked so pretty,” she would say when we re-watched the video of her arrival day in Wuhan on the Family Anniversary each year. The hardness of that “d,” and the spit of the past tense, would shoot into the conversation like an arrow. Not a pretty mom. Not a young mom. Not enough mom.

With that hard “d” ringing in my head, I did what I could do, day by day. Sometimes, most times, it seemed all I could do to step away from my failings was to step onto my yoga mat. I unrolled it in studio refuges or the grotty basement of the YMCA. I took a deep breath. And then I took one more. I aimed to stop marinating in a woeful past or vividly conjuring an even-worse future. I worked to make peace with my now, the very place she never wanted to be, certainly not as long as it was a now that had me in it. 

I remember buying this house. I remember standing outside and taking photographs of it to attach to the adoption paperwork. I remember trying so hard. It never once occurred to me then that this house would never be the refuge I dreamed it would be for her. If not exactly a prison, then perhaps, more generously, it has been nothing but a launching pad, and one that never seemed to be getting to launch time quickly enough.

She has been thrusting herself into the future as fast as she can, for as long as she can. She reaches out her hands and clutches big fistfuls of time, willing it to move her along, sure that what’s next has got to be better than here. Anywhere but here. Any time but now.

I step onto my mat. I take a deep breath and put my clasped hands on my third eye. I bend forward; I wish her everything, I wish her nothing: “Namaste.”

Friday, September 2, 2011

Red Threads, Connecting Us All

I just heard that a long-time friend seems to be losing her five-year battle with ovarian cancer We have shared some good times together, especially at the annual Culture Camp for Families with Children from China, back when the girls were little and we were volunteers, making it up as we went along.

She has a daughter named Emma too, same age as Emma Bao Wei.  But while my Emma is focused on getting ready to fly away this coming week for a year of study in Beijing, Theresa's Emma is at a bedside right now. Maybe she's holding her mom's hand. Maybe she's talking to her dad. But she's not looking forward with the shiny optimism I see on my girl's face, I am sure. The future does not hold hope for her now, but resignation.

The space I occupy these days is full of bustle and lists and last-minute errands.  Theresa is preparing for her own journey now, and I am sending her all the strength and energy I can muster, to help her along the way.

I wrote this story a few years ago for our organization's newsletter.  I just went back and re-read it, and I'm publishing it here today in honor of a soft and sweet and utterly lovely soul.  Safe travels, Emma.  Save travels, Theresa.

Here's the article, from 2008:

As a metaphor for the magical and invisible connection to their homelands, the red thread is a concept very familiar to people with kids adopted from China. “It represents the link between you and your birth parents,” we say, and “It’s the symbol of how proud you are to be from China.” I’m sure we drone on so much about it that our kids wish they could use a bit of their own handy red thread to bind up our chattering yappers.

Still, the symbol of the red thread, no matter how many times it is invoked by earnest parents, is such a powerful image that I wonder if it isn’t time for it to be claimed by us grownups, too. The red thread was meandering through my thoughts on a recent Saturday morning when a group from Families with Children from China gathered at Sociale. It’s a “meal preparation store,” the central idea of which seems to be guilt assuagement for people who really hate to cook but would like to pretend otherwise. The gist is “we do all the thinking for you, but because you scoop the garlic and the frozen vegetables – from separate bins, mind you -- into the Ziploc bag, you can tell everyone you cooked dinner.” I’ve noticed these joints sprouting up in the locations formerly occupied by aerobics studios, beading emporia and paint-your-own-plate establishments. If only I could predict what people will be clamoring for five years in the future – Knitting circles? Finger painting studios? Brew-your-own-beer parlors? then I would be one rich marketing maven. In the meantime, I’m tying on my pristine apron and chatting with my pals, most of whom are veterans of the process and who have brought along empty laundry baskets to fill with completed dinners. I wouldn't be surprised if someone pulled out a hairnet and slipped it on, for that Lunch Lady look.

There are people here that I met at waiting family events, when they seemed so confident and I truly wondered if I could even manage to change a diaper. There are people I met at weekend playgroups, when our kids crawled about and drooled and we, maybe for the first time that week, let our guard down with each other, knowing no one would ask, “Is she your daughter?” We’ve worked on committees and gotten into spats and been on camping trips and seen each other acting less than our personal best as parents. All that history ties us together. So we chatter on about our kids, and about whose husband has found a job and about who thinks she should be prescribed psychotropic medications for being crazy enough to enroll both of her kids in traveling soccer. And, in between the ordinary stuff, we talk about Theresa.

Theresa is the reason we are here today -- the slender, serene and honey-voiced woman who is the mom of Emma Xinhua, age 14, originally from Jiangsu but now of Golden Valley, Minnesota. Theresa, the woman who performs as the Moon Lady in our annual kick-off skit at Culture Camp every year, and who looks better in a form-sitting cheongsam than anyone has a right to, has been dealing with ovarian cancer for some months now. We want to know what we can do to help, and, like countless generations of people before us, we come up with one answer – food. Theresa may not feel like eating much, but she has a daughter and a husband and a home to run, even when she is sick. And because of the red thread, we are here today – the vibration of her illness sent waves through this tightly knit group, and now we’re putting on aprons and plastic gloves and helping in the way that seems to make the most sense – by making dinner.

On this particular Saturday morning, I am realizing how much I care about these people who were strangers 14 years ago. We all quickly understood how connected we were to that darling bundle of Chinese orphan that we adopted so many years ago, but I think that very few of us realized at the time that we were not just forming a family but, blessedly, entering into a community of other families like us. Because of the depth of spirit and commitment of parents in our Families with Children from China group, we now have an extended family that mirrors our own enough to feel – and forgive me for sounding a little Dr. Phil-ish here – safe and supported, both for us and for our kids.

While we are working, we talk about another of these meal-making events, held some months ago, for the family of a dad in our group, the father of two girls from China, Grace Shu and Julia Qiao, who suffered a stroke. Someone mentions, as she scoops pork chops into a round tin, that, as much fun as she is having today, she hopes we don’t do this again for a while. “Maybe for a happy reason,” someone else says, and someone else adds wistfully, “Maybe for a baby.” The thought of a happier, life-filled occasion brightens the atmosphere.

As I stack up Theresa’s meals in the cooler, I find myself thinking about another happy occasion, her 50th birthday party, just a few years ago. I remember her slinky black dress and her sparkling eyes. She and her husband had the first dance when the jazz combo started, spinning around and around while all her friends watched. When Hal spun his back to the group, I could see her glowing face over his shoulder.

That’s the deal with life, I think, patting down a bag of pork chops to make room for some saucy chicken breasts. One minute it’s Gershwin and a dress you squeezed into and wonderfully unsensible shoes. The next minute, it’s the Parade of Phone Calls, everyone with an anecdote about someone Just Like You who not only Beat this Thing, she’s now running triathlons. And the poles of those two moments – the spaces between the Fabulous Dress and the Sympathetic Phone Calls – that’s where all the rest of life happens. What stays constant is the people who stay by you, whether you weigh 25 pounds less and look so much better in evening wear than they do, or whether you’ve lost all your hair and are too weak to leave the house, so they bring over a dumb movie you can both watch between your naps.

All these well-meaning meals, I think, as I make a trip to the freezer with a three-portion tin of Ginger Pork Tenderloin. Mentally, I try to wrap a bit of red thread around each item, weaving some prayers and wishes that I hope will stick to the pans and the bags. Strength. And courage. And knowledge of the love of this group, this rumpled bunch of Saturday morning people who have made so many of the same journeys as Theresa has, and who must now stand back and watch her make this particular one on her own.

We are most certainly connected. The little stuff like being “blood relatives” doesn’t mean much to people like us, who already starting moving beyond the constraints of DNA when making families of our own. Given that, it seems hardly unusual that despite deep dissimilarities in politics, religion and worldview – and, even more significantly, with some of us living in Minneapolis and some in St. Paul -- that we’d find a way to be a community. We know that a family is more than being born into a group. Sometimes you make the family yourself, with a little help from the People’s Republic of China. And when you do, you tie that red thread around a group forever, connecting not just China to your child, but yourself to all these other parents who are walking along the same path.

There isn’t a recipe at the end of this blog, because it's really not about the food. True, I hope Emma and Hal and Theresa enjoy the Mean Green Chicken Wraps and the Peachy Georgia Pork Chops, but the actual composition of the dishes is beside the point. This particular Saturday, it was all about the red thread. I hope Theresa senses that thread, and feels its power, with every warm and nourishing meal.

Stay well, Theresa.