Saturday, April 12, 2014

Between two selves

Present life often seems more like a child's scribbles than a well-composed narrative.
How long before I'm whole again? When does the feeling of weightlessness lift? When does life cease to feel like a mirage.

This morning I received an email from one of my closest friends (in China) about his new album, including songs we once performed as a duo and in our short-lived band Tarheel. I quickly downloaded it and ran through the tracks. Memories flooded back as if from a past life. Where am I?

Two months ago I wrote this:
I wake up every morning knowing that I'm in Texas, knowing that I'm at my father's home, knowing that ahead of me is a day of activities mostly revolved around getting a job and getting my family into its own quarters. At the same time, I wake up every day as if in a dream, as if I could wake up and still be in Changsha, in my apartment, in my bed, breathing emphysema-inducing pollution, ready to face a new day.
I'm not really here.
Now two months on, not much has really changed. I have new habits (e.g. making coffee daily as opposed to just on the weekends; checking out library books). I have new craft beers. I have new friends (whom I will soon basically leave behind again). I have a new, much less polluted environment.

But I'm still not fully here.

I suppose I would describe it as being two selves. There was the self I knew, the self of my post-university adulthood. That was the China self, the self that had grown confident, capable, comfortable in its own skin. The China self knew its place in the world, or at least thought it did, which is almost one in the same. The China self is the self of my memories.

Then there's the self I'm still trying to get a feel for: the new US self. This is the self that's somewhat uncomfortable, somewhat ill-fitting, and completely unsure. The US self doesn't know its place. The US self has no cache of memories or anecdotes to draw on. There have been both losses and gains, but the US self still doesn't know how to react.

What happened to China? It seems a world away, and it kind of is. It seems a lifetime ago, if it ever happened at all. Perhaps I'm Rip Van Winkle and I've awoken from a decade-long Chinese nap, bewildered by what has changed and what hasn't.

I'm watching cardinals hop around in my backyard. Cardinals are odd to me. They're completely ill-suited to a green environment, yet they persist, they survive, and they even seem to thrive.

A child's transitions to a new country

As difficult as it has been for me to transition from life in China to life in the US, I suspect it’s been more difficult for my eldest son. The younger son isn’t old enough to remember China. He’s only 8 months old and has been here for most of that time. My eldest, however, remembers.

He remembers relatives.
He remembers friends,
He remembers foods.
He remembers activities.
He he knows things are different, even in what he doesn’t remember.

Would you spend your Thanksgiving at a Chinese light exhibition? We did.
People say kids adapt quickly. People say kids are resilient. I’m sure they are. But I don’t wake up inconsolable in the middle of the night (four of the past five nights, twice last night). I don’t wake up from naps frantically looking for mama. He does. Neither of these things happened in China.

I suspect he still feels out of place. He still observes groups of kids more than plays with them, which was not true of his China social life.

I suspect the month away from mama last year has affected his sense of security.

I wish he could tell me what’s going on. He’s made new friends, but I wish he had the language and cognitive ability to explain his feelings. He understands cars and car seats, but I wish he could explain his need to held for hours after a nap. He loves story time at the library, but I wish he could explain what’s happening when he starts wailing at midnight.

In all of this, my wife and I are just guessing at how to parent well. What does he need? More firmness? More gentleness? Do we need to indulge his need to be held at the loss of hours in a day? Does he need be held and spoken to calmly at night or would it be better to firmly tell him to go to bed? (We’ve had marginal success with both.) I hope we don't screw him up too much. I really hope we don't screw him up too much.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The world is full of awesome flavors! (If you give them a chance...)

"If a food is going to help forge a cultural identity, it must be an acquired taste, not a universal one."
(Michael Pollan, Cooked)

A package of kugua (bitter melon) from an Asian market in Arlington: a sight not beheld in most local supermarkets.

Coffee or baijiu?
Bitter melon or grapefruit?
Cheese or stinky tofu?

Which of these foods and beverages have you consumed? Which do you like? Which wouldn’t you even try?

While in China, I watched my wife gain a fondness for coffee, black coffee to be precise. Most in China only drink the heavily sugared and creamed versions. She long ago acquired a taste for cheese. I don't mean pizza, but cheese, real cheese. Just a few days ago, she remarked that she now enjoys grapefruit, and plain grapefruit at that, which may be more my influence than US cultural influence.

As for me, among many other tastes, I’ve acquired a taste for baijiu, a very strong flavored Chinese liquor that averages around 110 proof and is largely panned by non-Chinese. Kugua (bitter melon) is a vegetable I don’t really dare make for most Americans, but it’s a diet staple I miss now. Stinky tofu was never my favorite, but it's not bad, and I must admit to loving the packaged stinky tofu packets people sent us from China.

One of the more intriguing (and frustrating) ideas I’ve encountered, both in China and the US, is the idea of “not liking” a food. Specifically, not liking a food that is fairly common in another culture but not in that culture. The reality is that people generally don’t really dislike any food, even strongly flavored foods; they have merely not acquired an appreciation for it.

Foods with strong flavors, especially in the sour and bitter realms, and foods with strong aromas are all acquired tastes. Coffee is not something most people naturally like. People in China routinely remarked, “Oh, it’s too bitter,” when I decline sugar or cream. Nor is baijiu a natural preference, as Westerners routinely metaphorically compare it to paint thinner or worse. At least, I hope they aren't actually drinking paint thinner on the side.

Whether it's cheese for western folk (and these more European than American), stinky tofu for Chinese, kimchi in Korea, or hákarl (rotten shark) in Iceland, these are foods that aren't automatically enjoyed. These are tastes and textures, flavors and fragrances that have been acquired as people grow up in their cultures. They aren't universally enjoyed, like french fries. They aren't easy on the palate like birthday cake. They are difficult, yet acquirable. And they can be acquired by adults, if only we let ourselves.

Watching my wife acquire new tastes, I can’t help but love her more. She’s gastronomically adventurous. When we were first married, the idea of eating steamed carrots sans salt or oil was bewildering to her. She thought they were tasteless. Eventually, she started tasting the natural sweetness and now loves them.

It bothers me when I meet non-Chinese who continually speak negatively of baijiu after having it once or twice (or even a dozen times). It bothers me when Chinese try whiskies or tequilas and automatically pronounce them “no good”. In general, it bothers me that people say they “don’t like” something and therefore don’t eat it, especially if they say it a lot. I understand having preferences. I understand declining foods for health reasons, which I often do, as long as I'm not someone's guest. But rejecting a food or drink, especially one made for you, that seems both ill-mannered as well as ignorant of how taste preferences can and do evolve.

Why would anyone choose to limit their palate?

Monday, April 7, 2014

Leaving never stops being difficult (but you get used to it)

Oh, how we will all miss story time with Donna ayi.

"If anyone knows how to say goodbye to people, it's you."

That may not actually be a direct quote, but something to that effect was said to me by a good friend a few days ago. Left by itself, divorced from context, such a statement could have a very vibrant life of its own, not necessarily a positive one.

But I understood what my friend was communicating: Over 10 years, saying goodbye to family and friends in the US, saying goodbye to the parade of expats coming and going from Changsha, goodbye has become as normal as a birthday. It's almost a rite of summer. You get used to it.

That doesn't mean it's easy.

And I hate being the one to leave.

Though not so extreme as going from China to the US, we're slowly getting ready for another big move: from Texas to Arkansas. This time, rather than the huge cultural change were readying for a lifestyle change, one of trading the safe harbor of my fathers'' home for the uncertain currents of independent life.

But as with China, we don't just leave a place; we leave a people.

We haven't put down roots in Texas, so to speak, but neither have we been rootless. Liao Sha's been involved with a mother's group. I've been involved with two morning mens' groups. Our family has been meeting with a city group hosted by one of my old Des Moines roommates. We've enjoyed our time with my fathers' church in Weatherford. We've felt at home with the Chinese church in Fort Worth and have grown close to a Korean family in that body.

These are people we've prayed with and for. These are people who have prayed for us. These are people with whom we've shared concerns and meals. These are people who've extended open hands of friendship and open hearts. These are people who've surprised us time and time again with clothing and toys for the boys, food products, invitations, and even money. There are people we don't even know who are right now contributing to a project initiated by my wife's friends to gather up household goods we may need in Fayetteville: dishes, blankets, etc.

And soon we will leave them. For the second time in less than eight months, we will uproot for a new horizon, and new people, and a new way of life. It never gets easier. At least it doesn't for me. And I would always prefer for people to leave me than I them. Yet, off we will go.

Something that just hit me yesterday is that this will be the second time since November that Barnabas will have his social world turned upside-down. (Perhaps annihilated?) He still occasionally mentions old friends in Changsha, most commonly Mai-mai, Chu-chu, and Enosh (in that order of frequency). Now he'll say goodbye to his seven-year-old cousin (whom he adores), Marley jiejie, Dong-dong meimei, Stephen gege, and Naomi meimei among others. He'll lose story time with Donna ayi and playtime with relatives. When I thought of this yesterday, it nearly caused me to cry.

This post is for our friends and family in China, whom we still miss on a daily basis.
This post is for my friends and family scattered across the US, whom we hope to see.
This post is for our friends and family in Texas, whom we will miss and already grieve leaving.

Thank you for being part of our lives.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Fatherhood and "danger" in the US

Standing on the edge having just climbed the retaining wall

In China I somewhat prided myself in the fact that we let our son do things that many Chinese parents and grandparents simply would not let their kids do. I liked that my son did "dangerous" things like jumping off ledges twice as tall as himself, climbing ladders a month after he started walking, putting sand on his head, running on the grass. (Yes, I've actually heard Chinese grandparents tell their grandchildren not to run while on grass because it's dangerous.)

Now in the US I find myself nervous. I know CPS employees and hear their stories. I hear other parents comment about what kids can and can't do. I feel like I'm on a fence, trying not to fall off into the "irresponsible parent" side.

Here are some questions I've found myself asking, some to myself and some out loud, some more ridiculous than others:

  • If I get a tricycle for my son, will he need a bike helmet?
  • Is it okay that I let him run around the backyard shoeless, knowing that there are occasional sand burrs in the grass?
  • Can I just let him play in the mud in the mostly dry creek bed?
  • People won't think we're neglecting him because his hair is long, will they?
  • It's okay to let him climb up the retaining wall, right?
  • Should I tell him not to walk on top of the retaining wall?
  • Will I get blamed if he gets bit by a snake or a black widow?

I know why I'm nervous. It seems all Chinese have heard the story (it may have been a movie) of a Chinese parent losing custody of their children in the US after giving the child a cupping treatment. Cupping is thought to prevent certain illnesses, and the process leads to large bruises. In the US, this was considered abuse. I've been asked by many Chinese, "Is this true? Would police really take away children for this?"

I don't know if CPS would take children away for cupping or not. If so, it really reveals a lack of cultural knowledge and a hypersensitive idea of what constitutes a danger to a child's wellbeing.

But could they? It has me worried. How crazy is it in the US now?

The scary thing is that I don't know. The funny thing is also that I don't know.