Today is the day before Chinese Labor Day (May 1st), so Nai Nai fulfilled a long-held wish to take us to her home in Dagang, a district on the ocean, and far from the city in Tianjin (Tianjin is an independent municipality, and much of it is not really city at all, but it is still a part of Tianjin Shi -Tianjin City).
When we began planning this, she told me she would pick us up at 8, and last night, the kids were up unusually late while we got to know some wonderful new friends and went swimming at the neighboring hotel. We thought we’d let the kids sleep ’til 7:45, and then just dress them and run downstairs. Of course, what should happen at 7:15 but the ringing telephone? (I wasn’t very surprised.) We didn’t answer it (because I felt so aggravated), and of course, Nai Nai called several more times, and Brian finally answered the phone and told her we’d come down at 8:00 as we had agreed. He hopped in the shower, and a few minutes later we heard banging on our door. I didn’t answer for a long time, but she never gave up, so I opened the door and she told me, will lots of disapproval in her voice, that Zhao was downstairs waiting and we needed to hurry (it’s was 7:30 by then). I told her the kids were asleep and we’d be down at 8. She was not pleased, but I shut the door because I didn’t want my kids to have to be wakened from a miraculously still-sound sleep by her (thought it would be a bit overwhelming). That was our less-than-glorious start to the day. I am happy to say that I got over it about 30 minutes into the car ride.
It’s really hard to explain. What I have written about her previously, in addition to this, sounds very bad, and in America, it would mean she is a very different person from what she really is. But in China, that is a parent’s place, even in their grown child’s life, and when she is irritated, you can take what she says at face value. She is not more irritated than she seems, and it doesn’t extend beyond that situation. Chinese people speak their minds. An American is very unlikely to speak out so quickly if they feel upset, so when they finally do, it’s likely that there’s a lot more emotion behind their words. It is also just her role to take care of us, because we are her children and she has more experience than we do (and also completely normal to talk about other people’s shortcomings openly – to call your children the fat one, the beautiful one and the smart one, and so on–her own children told me in front of her that she’s a terrible cook and I should taste her daughter’s cooking, and she agreed). So while it still does irritate me, and occasionally makes me want to shout obscenities at her, you have to realize that she is really a good person and does everything she does for us out of love. I just wish I could stop the almost overwhelming desire to do exactly the opposite of what she tells me to do. Most of the time I really do adore her–I just have to avoid outings with her if I can, and then everyone is happier.
Anyhow, I wish I could say it was a beautiful day, but it was one of the smoggier days we’ve been here, from start to finish. We could barely see three buildings in front of us. Needless to say, it was hard to whole-heartedly agree with Nai Nai’s frequent comments about the beauty of Dagang; “Dui bu dui?” (Isn’t that right?)
We stopped a beautiful Romanesque aquadeuct-esque park where people were fishing in stagnant water, and then again briefly at Pashan Gongyuan (“gongyuan” means “park,” and “shan” means “mountain;” not sure about “pa”) where we rode the swings at a tiny amusement park.
We ended up at Nai Nai’s son’s house, a beautiful apartment with a shabby exterior, as almost all but the newest buildings in China seem to have. They were so kind and offered the children all kinds of snacks and kept telling us to rest. When Nai Nai’s oldest daughter’s husband (my older sister and brother-in-law, she never lets me forget) arrived, we ate dinner.
I like eating Chinese style because it isn’t so obvious if I don’t try something or don’t like something. And there are definitely fewer dishes. The weirdest part of the day was how it seemed it was their goal to see how drunk they could get the foreigner. First they poured us wine (and were very gracious when I said I “couldn’t” drink it), then poured him this very strong Chinese alcoholic beverage that smelled like nail polish remover that might also have removed my toenail. Brian clearly found it a little over-powering, but they kept pushing him and teasing him, and before he was even done with it, they poured him a glass of beer, and if he didn’t drink, my da-jiejie’s husband would lift up HIS glass and say, “Cheers.” I don’t even know how many times they filled his glass. I am proud to say he handled it very well. I imagine they were curious to see how a foreigner handles alcohol. Apparently, most people of Han Chinese decent have what is called an alcohol flush reaction, because their bodies can’t process alcohol (you should look it up, it’s fascinating), where their faces and/or bodies turn red or blotchy when they drink alcohol, and they may also feel faint, nauseous or “generally uncomfortable.”
They loved the kids, and were so accommodating (I ALWAYS forget that there are two m’s in that word) putting the kids and I (and Zhao, dear thing) down for a nap on the biggest bed in the house (still as hard as a rock). We lay sideways across the bed (and my feet barely hung off), Zhao at the foot, then Teddy, me, Toby and Piper.
I was amazed at how fast they fell asleep (they were wiped out from swimming for 4 hours the day before and staying up until 9:30 at night), and it was kind of sweet to all have a nap together (I don’t know if it’s ever happened before). After nap, we walked around the very bare and depressing housing complex, with no grass and surrounded on the outside by oil rigs. At 3:30, we left to start the journey home (did I mention it was two hours with the five of us in the backseat of a small car?), much to our relief, as there were only two balls to play with and three children.
We stopped at a nice park on the way home, where the kids got to play in some sand, give Nai Nai a few heart attacks, and wind it all up by a ride on some electric kid cars.
We survived the rest of the long, sweaty ride home, with Zhao’s erratic driving (stopping in the middle of the road, driving the wrong way down roads barricaded closed for construction–where, incidentally, when she reached the other end of the barricaded area, she was not shy about holding down her horn to make the construction workers, whose job it was to keep cars like her out, move the barricades so she could get out–swerving around bicycles, slamming on her horn if she hadn’t made her presence known in a while, and answering her phone while driving on the wrong side of the freeway) and the consequent frequent contact with the backs of the front seats to keep us awake. We were very relieved when we made it home in one piece. I imagine riding in cars in China will give us all excellent upper body strength.
PS: I also learned (in the more useful, permanent kind of way that happens sometimes when you have to learn a word out of necessity to communicate), how to say that I gave birth, that the children were born, and “windows.”
Also, when Chinese students take a school holiday like this one, where the actual holiday is in the middle of the week (this happened with Qing Ming Festival, too), they go to school on Saturday and Sunday so that they can take Monday and Tuesday off along with the holiday on Wednesday, to make a long weekend.