I am sitting on my couch at 10:45 in the morning, on my computer, and yet somehow, my house is being cleaned and my children are being cared for. This is the end result of a whirlwind of confusion and miscommunication, and some just pure awfulness with a mixed-feelings ending that can only happen to me in precisely this way in China.
A few weeks ago I finally succumbed and decided that I needed to get an ayi to clean the house for me, because I just can’t keep up with it and be a decent mom at the same time. I was talking to our relocation agent, Mengchen, about it, who happened to show up while my friend Zhao was here, so of course, Zhao found out about it, and made it her mission to find me one. All I wanted was an ayi so that I could take care of the kids instead of choosing the house over them, I didn’t want a nanny or a school for the kids.
In the meantime, however, a nearby bilingual kindergarten had beenasking us for a while about coming to see the school, and I had been putting them off, partially because I have been so busy and partially because I wasn’t ready to send them to school. However, last Friday I consented to go and look at the school, and that morning, as I sat at the computer talking to a dear friend on Google Voice and the kids ran around yelling with underwear on their heads and no pants on and Cheerios strewn about the floor, I heard a knock on my door, and it was Zhao, with a maid. Why is it that Chinese people love to show up unexpectedly at the worst possible times? Is it only because of the language barrier, or is it a cultural thing, too? I wasn’t prepared with anyone who actually speaks English to help me communicate (my friend downstairs was kind enough to come upstairs at the last minute to help me out), and I didn’t even know she’d found anyone. I had half an hour before I needed to go look at the school, Brian was in bed with a stomach virus, and the kids were, well…doing what I had mentioned above. I didn’t know whether I would be putting the kids in school, and I really don’t need a maid if my kids will be gone during the day, but the situation was ridiculous and overwhelming, and I ended up agreeing to a trial month, 3 days a week, 2-3 hours a day, 20 kuai an hour (about $3). The woman’s name is Ding; she is 37 and has a son who is studying piano in Germany, and she used to be a nurse. She’s never been a maid before, but from what I understand, she’s Zhao’s friend and wants to be around English speakers. She’s really very sweet, and doesn’t seem like she’ll be the forceful, bossy, nosy kind of ayi I most dreaded (if I were to hire any of the Grandmas who come up to me in the park to tell me my children are too cold or too dirty, etc.). I imagine at the end of the month I will be telling her that I just don’t need a maid if I am at home while the children are at school. I would have told her that sometime this weekend after I had decided to put the kids in school, but I have this problem where I am afraid to hurt anyone’s feelings or make them mad at me, to the point of ridiculousness, even with people I have only seen once and will never see again. Even people who are out to cheat me. I think China will slowly help cure me of it, but it’s going to take a while, and it definitely isn’t natural for me.
Anyway, I managed to get them out the door just in time to clothe the children and walk to the school. It’s a small school staffed by three Filipino teachers and a Chinese teacher. It currently has only 5 students, but it has nice facilities with 2 classrooms and a large playroom/nap room/eating room. The teachers are all really nice and they go over the top with preparing weekly newsletters with pictures of the previous weeks activities and detailed lesson plans for the upcoming weeks. The kids will be there from 8:30 in the morning (to eat breakfast) to 12:45, just after lunch. Going to school half time in China is very unusual, but I’m not ready for anything else, and after this, there isn’t another option for the kids that involves school, that I know of, and I really do still want to home-school them (while an ayi cleans my house). I don’t see the kids even staying there until the end of kindergarten which is from 3-5 years old here, especially if we move away from Chengji (which I so badly want to do), but I think it will be good for them to learn to play with Chinese children (Piper, I have finally figured out, is not racist, but linguist, a term I shall steal to describe her desire to only play with children who speak English, regardless of skin color), obey people besides me and eat Chinese food (keeping my fingers crossed on that one). Maybe it will be just the thing we need to get back on track. Maybe it will take them outside of their little bubble of playing exclusively with each other that has resulted in the increasing insanity and roughness in their play. At any rate, I imagine they’ll be pretty happy there, and hopefully when they are done, I’ll be better prepared to be a good mom/teacher to them.
I really am very happy with the school, and it’s the only kind of school I could have sent them to.
So this morning was the first day of school. Teddy woke up crying before six because he had had diarrhea and it had leaked out onto his bed. Amazingly enough, that would be the 4th time we have woken up early for that same reason in the last week. We had been gone all the previous day and I wanted to pick up some of the stuff on the floor before the maid showed up for her first day, and I also needed to get the kids’ things ready for their first day of school. So that, combined with Teddy’s frequent diarrhea for the next two hours, made for a hectic morning, but all of that would have been okay had it not been for the pounding we heard on our door at quarter to eight. Dear, dear Nai Nai. I begged Brian not to let her in, but really, there’s nothing he can do to stop her. She came in and started cleaning, I told her to stop because we had a maid coming, she said, “What, you have a maid now AND your kids are going to kindergarten?” Yes, my thoughts exactly, but hard to convey with a language barrier and really, I wasn’t feeling very open to criticism for something that was bothering me already. I was feeling very bitter about her intrusion on what I had hoped would be a special morning for the kids’ first day of school. Of course, she didn’t stop cleaning. I should be grateful, but I HATE it when she walks in and starts cleaning (I hate it the most when I feel like the house is actually clean for once). Meanwhile, we decided not to bring Teddy, who was devastated, and I tried to sneak out the door with Toby and Piper, hoping I could at least bring them to school on my own, but I had no such luck. Nai Nai came tearing after me, and insisted on coming along, too. She was giving them plenty of advice, none of which they could understand, of course. She told Toby that he had to listen to his teachers and eat all his food, and he said, “San sui.” (I’m three years old.) I do appreciate his effort at communication.
We got to school and the kids were so happy to be there, and the teachers told me they wanted me to bring Teddy anyway, because they didn’t want him to miss the fun of going to the English book store, the field trip for today, even though they were fully informed about his condition. So I gathered Nai Nai and left to go get Teddy (I didn’t tell her I was getting Teddy because I didn’t want her company again), and she cried, and said what good children they were for not crying when I left, and talked about how her children had cried when she left them at school. At that moment I felt I could forgive her for her intrusion, and most times, it ends up that way. But I still wish she wouldn’t butt in on our affairs so often, and I wish I could handle it with more grace and dignity in my inner soul when she does. I must confess I say awful things when she shows up, only because she can’t understand of course, and it relieves my feelings. I need to have a better attitude, but it was very hard to let go of losing that perfect first-day-of-school-of-their-lives morning, and have their last few moments at home be turned into complete chaos. Of course, it wasn’t all her fault–definitely not her fault that Teddy couldn’t be present for their first day of school picture–but I console myself that the one with their uniforms will be so much cuter.
A Nai Nai Aside: I was sick with a stomach virus that was circulating our family last week–which, of course, may STILL be circulating–and I knew that of all things, I did not want to see Nai Nai, because she’d figure out very quickly that I was sick and I didn’t want a lecture about going to the hospital, or more gifts of antibiotics. So I told the kids that if she knocked we would be very, very quiet, because I didn’t feel well enough to see Nai Nai. Accordingly, when she knocked, they were perfect angels, and we sat in silence for TEN minutes. That is seriously how long it took her to give up. And she really had no reason to suspect that we were home. She pounded on the door with the heel of her palm–not sure why she slaps doors instead of knocking–and tried all of our names, in Chinese and English, then called, then pounded some more. I think it annoys me just because I am sure it’s what she does if I’m really not home and she comes by. I also can’t tell you how many times I have taken the kids out in the morning so that Brian could work on his podcast (more on that later), only to come back and find that I just missed Nai Nai, who stayed the entire time I was gone and completely negated my attempts to give Brian a morning to work in quiet. Oh the mixed feelings. I hate them. I want to be able to feel undiluted joy at her arrival, but I just can’t. I also can’t feel undiluted annoyance, either. I think this is just the experience of most people who have naturally-acquired Chinese grandmothers. Seriously, as I go back through this now to edit it, I love her.
Anyway, back to the school. Since starting this post (a week ago), the children have now attended their first full week of school, and they are all so happy there, though Teddy tells me every morning he doesn’t want to go, but then wishes me a cheerful (if too hasty) goodbye the moment we walk in the door. Piper, until today, threw a massive fit every time I showed up to pick her up, and they did not help, telling her she could stay if she wanted to (and telling me I could just pay more next month, if it worked out). Yesterday, I put my foot down (so to speak) and told her she wasn’t going to be staying the whole day ever, and the next time she threw a fit, she wouldn’t go to school the next day. I also wrote to the school to tell them it for sure would never happen that we’d be sending the kids full day (because, not only do I want to have them for half the day, but we can’t afford full day or the lifestyle changes that would make affording it possible, as I do want to see my husband sometimes). So today, she was happy when I came to get her. Will it last? That remains to be seen.
Since starting school, the kids have already had field trips to the zoo and an English bookstore, and a trip to KFC for a classmate’s birthday. They have eaten things they would never have eaten at home, Piper has learned a few Chinese words, and has made friends with both her classmates in spite of her earlier statements that she only wanted to play with people who speak English. I have found my days without them filled too quickly, not in quite the way I had hoped, but I am looking forward to next week and using my time in ways a little more to my liking. In spite of the silliness of having a maid, I cannot lie–coming home to a clean house that I did not clean myself is one of the nicest things I’ve ever experienced. I still feel as tired at the end of the day after dealing with my children for 8 hours, as I did when dealing with them for 13, which is disappointing, but maybe that will improve with time. I guess at least I am not also trying to wash the floors and bathrooms at the same time.