Reflections on Our First Year in China

Look at these munchkins, off on a new life adventure, and completely unaware.

Look at these munchkins, off on a new life adventure, and completely unaware.

December 7th was the first day of our second year in China. Quite coincidentally, Brian re-entered China the exact same day that our passports were stamped last year (though we technically arrived 30 minutes before the new day began). I don’t know why exactly it feels so much longer than a year that we have been here, but I am guessing a lot of it has to do with two things: how much our children have changed, and how different our lives are now than they were when we first came.

Our first hotel room, where we stayed 6 hours.

Our first hotel room, where we stayed 6 hours.

It’s strange to look back on our first night in the Chinese hotel, with nothing to drink but water we boiled in a hot water pot, and waited for what seemed like hours for it to cool enough for the children to drink, looking out the window that first morning on our first sight of wintry Beijing. We had no idea where to buy even the simplest things, and were unprepared for the difficulty of getting a taxi as 5 foreigners with too many bags. For weeks after we arrived, I just wanted Brian to do all the going out that was necessary. I dreaded setting foot outside the house, trying to communicate and being assaulted by all the terrible smells that were particularly prevalent in our corner of the city. I think back to those early days, feeling so lost and overwhelmed, and I don’t miss them at all. Nor do I miss that terrible apartment that was our  home for the first nine months. I look at pictures of that time, and I still feel depressed just thinking about it. So over-crowded and dark and filthy. It enabled us to meet our most life-changing Chinese friends, but how glad I am to have put all that behind us. I never dreamed life in China could be so good before we moved into our new apartment.

Meeting Nai Nai for the first time. We had no idea how important she would be to us. She has been my most influential Chinese teacher.

Meeting Nai Nai for the first time. We had no idea how important she would be to us. She has been my most influential Chinese teacher.

Now I don’t feel too intimidated by navigating around the parts of China to which I am accustomed (big cities). I am not afraid to hail a taxi (unless I have three kids with me, but that will never change), I don’t need to carry a paper around with my destination on it, I can finally just make the call to the store to ask them to bring me water (for some reason, communicating over the phone in Chinese is much more intimidating than trying it in person), I can buy a train ticket and navigate public transportation, and I have used a squatty ONCE! (Don’t judge me for my amazing bladder capacity.) I have even finally tricked my neighbor into complimenting me on how much Chinese I understand by pretending very convincingly to understand most of what she was saying. (She is not one of those easily fooled people on the street who pat my arm and exclaim over how well I speak Chinese when I say, “Ni hao.” Unfortunately, I think that in entering my second year in China, I am leaving that safe bubble where people are impressed with minute (my-newt, not unit of time) Chinese.)

I guess if I had to rank my Chinese language abilities on a scale of 0-10, with 0 being what I had when I came here, I’d say it’s somewhere between 1 and 1.5, and maybe even that is ambitious. I am still almost completely illiterate, which doesn’t feel as strange as I thought illiteracy would feel. I can measure my acquisition of Chinese by periodic conversations with taxi drivers. During my last taxi ride, I talked to a nice man who has two sons, ages 13 and 11. He and his wife are not only-children, so he had to pay 6,000 yuan, one time, for his second son’s hukou (the way people are registered in a city and able to attend school, etc.) – I think people usually have to pay something like 36,000 yuan for that. We were also able to talk about the fact that girls are easier than boys (apparently Chinese people agree), and in America, lots of people don’t have jobs, but they can still have places to live and food to eat even when unemployed (not the case in China, I guess), and our government will give us money when we have children, as opposed to our having to pay a fine for keeping them. Oh, and there aren’t as many traffic jams in America, but I wouldn’t really know because I usually lived outside the city. I am always amazed at how much they can understand when I don’t even approximate a correct use of tones. You really need a surprisingly small vocabulary to carry on a conversation.

A year older, and they still can't stay still for photos.

A year older, and they still can’t stay still for photos.

When we arrived in China, I weighed 20 pounds more than I do now (don’t worry, I’m working on getting it all back thanks to my new oven), and Brian weighed a few pounds less than he does now (I won’t speculate on how much). And we arrived with 2 2-year-olds and a 3-year-old, one potty trained in the daytime and all in diapers at night. I don’t think they had any concept that there were such things as other countries and languages. They sat in a stroller everywhere we went, cried at the drop of a hat, seemed to want to roll around on the floor more than anything else (extremely stressful when five grandmas jump in to save your children from the floor the moment they touch it), needed help doing everything, especially dressing themselves, ate like cavemen, and the thought of sitting through a long flight with them was terrifying.

The only clothing they are wearing that is left from what we brought from America is that hat on Piper's had. It's her 3rd winter in it!

The only clothing they are wearing that is left from what we brought from America is that hat on Piper’s had. It’s her 3rd winter in it!

Now they are 3.5 and 5 (no, Piper doesn’t age faster than normal humans, I am just a slacker in posting and she got to 5 before I got around to this). They can wash their hands and get dressed and go to the bathroom and play in their rooms after they wake up all on their own. They are all potty-trained in the daytime and peed-in pants are a thing of the past, and 2/3 of them are mostly potty-trained at night (coincidentally, it’s the oldest one who is usually wet in the morning). They can walk everywhere without the use of the stroller (albeit with a lot of complaining)–thank goodness, because it was giving out. I do miss it, though. It made walks for pleasure just a bit more pleasurable. I also don’t think the prospect of a 13-hour flight with them would scare me anymore. That’s a big step.

Our "family" (plus the Nai Nai who bites butts, in red, that I don't count). Nai Nai and Zhao, my mother and my sister.

Our “family” (plus the Nai Nai who bites butts, in red, that I don’t count). Nai Nai and Zhao, my mother and my sister.

Most important of all, when we arrived in China, we knew no one at all, and now we have a group of friends and adopted family I imagine will be in our lives forever.

Dear Echo and sweet Sunny, my best friend and my little sister.

Dear Echo and sweet Sunny, my best friend and my little sister.

Sunny's mom and dad. I have no idea what we'd do without these kind people.

Sunny’s mom and dad. I have no idea what we’d do without these kind people.

 

We’ve been thinking a bit about the future, and honestly have no idea what it holds, whether we will be in China for one more year, or many. It’s so hard to know. How can my heart long so desperately for some things I simply cannot have here, but break at the thought of leaving this place behind? I made a China Pros and Cons list, and I’ll share most of it with you. I tried to include everything, both the frivolous and the important.

Pros:

  • Most things are cheaper here.
  • Fresh fruits and vegetables are very cheap.
  • The diet is healthier.
  • The kids can learn Chinese.
  • I can learn Chinese.
  • Unlimited access to pirated entertainment.
  • So many good friends.
  • Brian likes his job and it suits his strengths.
  • Lots of job opportunities here.
  • Jobs in America are hard to come by.
  • Intercultural life for our children.
  • International friends.
  • Opportunities to see the world.
  • We walk everywhere.
  • Life is simpler.
  • Higher material quality of life for less money.
  • Chinese people are so welcoming to foreigners.
  • Every day is an adventure.
  • If we move, we have to start over.
  • Nice to be away from some aspects of US culture.
  • We just love China and Chinese people.

Cons:

  • No easy/affordable access to dental and medical care that we completely trust.
  • Far away from a Western hospital in case of an emergency.
  • No health insurance.
  • Air pollution.
  • Other unknown contaminants in water and food.
  • No backyard/outdoor free-play for the kids.
  • Kids go a little stir-crazy sometimes from being trapped in a small apartment.
  • Kids are not treated normally by their peers.
  • No easy access to a library.
  • Kids are treated like they are too special by Chinese people, like there’s something special and different about them because they’re foreigners. It’s like reverse racism, and it’s having a bad effect on them.

The way the kids are treated is probably the biggest issue, and I’m not sure what to do about it. I mean, I want them to have healthy self-esteem, but I don’t like them thinking they’re superstars and deserve better treatment than other children. But in so many ways, life is so good here, and it would be really hard to leave it behind, knowing we couldn’t just pop back to visit life here anytime we wanted.  All in all, it’s been a good year, and I am so happy to be on this side of it, and I’m so glad that I will never have to come to China for the first time, lost and alone, again. I’m glad it’s feeling like home.

How could I not love a country that loves my children so much?

How could I not love a country that loves my children so much?

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