Sunday, March 27, 2011

Spring Break

Despite only being in school for three weeks now, the boys are enjoying a much deserved week of Spring Break from ISB. Devon starred in the 2nd grade circus which was an extravaganza - he was quite the clown which really wasn't much of a stretch for him. He balanced a feather, did a jump rope routine and performed in a martial art show. The show was emceed by a PE teacher named Mr. Shuester, yes, Gleeks, that's really is his name. Bennett's Spring break provides a brief respite from his EC-4 swimming classes which are a sight. The pool is full of twenty or so four year olds, all in orange floaties, and the teachers try to make sense out of it from the side of the pool. The swim coach is in the water with them, and every parent stands and snaps photos from the observation deck. Upon our arrival, Parker was in the thrust into the class play entitled, To Your Good Health, Your Majesty, which was a brilliant performance. He played a wall, a cave, a wolf, a well, and a "moon" - just a little sliver of a moon when he crawled around the stage as a wolf and his pants rode a little low exposing some "moon" to the audience. Maybe no one else noticed, as they stared at their own young participant, but Joanne and I looked at each other and snort laughed, "he needs some bigger pants!"

Joanne is up and out early each weekday, catching a shuttle or a ride to the embassy by 7:00 or so. The boys have to be at the bus at 7:45 so we are falling into a workable routine for our travel to school. Parker and Devon get on their bikes and cruise on down the roads of our compound to the main entrance where the buses await. Bennett and I take a different path – a slow one. Bennett's little legs churn away on his new bike pedals, sometimes fast, sometimes not, and I ride along side saying, "C'mon Bennett, we're gonna be late...Bennett let's go, we're going to miss the bus...Bennett, you are going too slow."

Sometimes he ignores me, but mostly my coaxing causes him to put his head down, give me his fiercest look of determination and claim, "So, you think THIS is too slow!!!".

This burst of peddling power lasts some ten or fifteen meters or until we reach the next speed bump. There are about 10 speed bumps along the way, and they are just bumpy enough to cause a panic in the freshly biking Bennett. When we finally arrive, he hops off at the "bike parking only" lot in front of the clubhouse and scurries, hauling his oversized backpack, to the waiting bus – usually the last arrival. We've only missed the bus once, resulting in a 12 kuai cab ride to the school. Typically though, I hand him over to the bus monitors, who like many other locals, dote over him, saying upon seeing him, "ooh, baby," pinching his cheeks, and rubbing his head. There is no shortness of love shown for Benne. The buses are far different from the "cheese wagons" we are used to in the USA. These are more like charter buses with individual seats for each rider, seat belts, and monitors who walk the bus, mostly smiling at the expat kids who ride, but sometimes handing out a look of discontent to the rowdier riders in the back of the bus. Parents are allowed to ride the bus too, and I have taken two or three bus trips with the boys.

The boys arrive at school and go straight to recess. They start with a period of outside playtime, then after about 15 minutes, they file into their classrooms and do normal school day stuff. The older boys have Chinese class a few times a week, and most of their home work comes from the Chinese teacher. Devon came home the first day exasperated saying, "I don't know how I am ever going to learn this stuff. She speaks Chinese half of the time, and English with an accent the rest of the time, and I can't tell which is which." With arms extended in a look of surrender, he followed comment up by rattling off about fifteen colors in Mandarin.

"Dad, do you know what 'orange' is? Cheng-sa."

"What about Red, sonny?"

"Hung-sa. Blue is lan-sa, green in lu-sa, pink fan-sa..."

Joanne and I looked at each other with a chuckle, "dude, don't complain about your teacher, it sounds like she is doing just fine in communicating with you."

As the boys were quite deserving of their week off from school, for me the days felt much the same as normal, with the exception of having the boys to keep me company. Typically, when the boys are safely on the bus to school, I spend my time drinking coffee, attending my Chinese language class on Wednesday and Friday, taking shopping excursions, writing, organizing our photos and music collections, shopping, cleaning the house, applying for substitute teaching jobs at the boys' school, volunteering to collect registrations for the local youth sports organization, FB ing, going to visit Joanne at the embassy, applying for jobs at the get the picture. I keep myself busy until the five school buses come rumbling down the street and pull into the "no parking zone" that always has cars parked in it, and I wave half-waves and head nods to the collection of Ayi's, moms, and one or two other dads, who greet their kids at the afternoon bus. Again, Parker and Devon race off, usually making it all the way home, only to have to ride all the way back to where Bennett and I meander along, to retrieve the key, enter the house, and do some afternoon snacking. Usually by the time Benne and I make it home, Devon and Parker have cleaned out the Oreos or Ice cream, or some other munchies which I then regret to have bought.

In an effort to curb this snacking trend we hired an Ayi over the Spring Break holiday. Well we hired her to clean and do laundry, shop and help with the kids, but fixing up snack time should be a nice added bonus. With the help of a friend, we interviewed Ayi Li on a Saturday, and she came into the house for a one-day trial the following Saturday. After the trial we Google Translated to her our desire to hire her for a one-month probationary period, and if that worked fine for all involved, we would like to hire her full time.

It was fortunate that she started over Spring Break; she could get to know the boys, I was here and could attempt to answer any questions she had, and we could work on the language barrier which, while it is very challenging for now, is certain to help us in breaking down the language by giving us a heavy dose of exposure. Ayi Li smiles a lot, and says "okay" quite often – the only English word I've heard her speak. She does light up around the boys and tries to play Legos, and Wii and action figures with them. Two or three times a day we sit down with a computer logged into Google Translate, a dictionary, my Chinese Language class textbook and a pad of paper and try to hash out any questions we have for her or she has for us. During one of those sessions this week, I asked her to cook.

"Ayi Li? Your resume says you cook - "

She wags her finger at me, indicating that she doesn't understand what I am saying, then points to the computer, spouting a quick phrase in Chinese.

I click of few keys and the box on the computer screen fills with a similar phrase, what do you cook?

She shakes her head, "Bu..." - followed by more Chinese that I get lost in. Knowing that "Bu" is the negative article in Chinese, it's pretty clear that she is telling me "No". But what I can't tell is if her "No" is a: No, I don't cook; No I don't cook American food; No my resume is wrong; No, you'll have to pay me more money if you want me to cook; No, I don't know what you want me to cook, or any other negative, yet cooking related phrase, that she might be indicating.
We settle on the idea of calling the River Garden Front Desk; in any bind – with the Ayi, a confused taxi driver, or even a sales clerk at a local store – the front desk is fine with serving as interpreter.

After an extensive conversation in fast spoken Chinese with Ayi Li, she hands me the phone.

"Hello, this Steven from the Front Desk. Your Ayi says that she wants to cook for you, but you don't have the rice or the vegetables and so she cannot cook."


Oh, of course, now I get it...No, I can't cook with this stuff you have here, I mean, where is the rice, dude?

While I have Steven on the phone, I ask him to tell her that I want her to shop for whatever she needs on Monday, and to then to cook whatever she wants that is not too spicy. We'll see how that goes tomorrow, but the plan is that when the boys come in from school tomorrow, they will have wok full of mifan(fried rice) or mienchao(chow mien noodles) to fulfill their snack attack as opposed to emptying the cupboard of candy and cookies
Ayi came Tuesday and Wednesday during Spring Break week, but we gave her the rest of the days off and she starts full time tomorrow. Thursday we all got up and taxied in to the embassy med unit for vaccinations. We started the process before we left the states, but some of the vaccinations require 2nd and 3rd shots, so we all got stuck with Rabies and Japanese Encephalitis vaccines. Many of our neighbors and the boy's school mates are off Spring breaking at exotic beaches in Vietnam or Thailand, places we hope to visit on a future break when we are over this feeling that we are simply on vacation here. We decided to reward the boy's good behavior at the med unit by having a Beijing stay-cation of our own. We booked a room at The Sunworld Dynasty hotel inside the 2nd Ring of Beijing – basically in center city. When we walked into the hotel lobby we realized that it may one-star too many for our band of wild children. Upon hearing the woman playing Grand Piano in the hotel lobby, Bennett claimed, "It's ballet time," and twirled and pirouetted back and forth across the marble floor to the amazement of the patrons and staff. The rest of us looked at each other and said, "anybody know who that boy belongs to?"

We passed up on the elegant and Western priced buffet in the hotel and ventured out on the town for dinner. After just a short walk we found a friendly looking restaurant with a picture menu that included Donkey, Bullfrog and live fish, but we decided on plates of Kung Pao Chicken, sweet cooked beef, dumplings and spring rolls. We all shared, we all ate with chopsticks, and we left wonderfully satisfied for 200 kuai.

We went to bed early, and when we rolled out on Friday morning, after a swim in the hotel pool, we were ready for adventure and adventure is what we found. We set out in full tourist outfittings – open map, camera around neck, that "I don't have a clue" look on our faces - in search of Tien An Min Square and The Forbidden City. We walked, ate at a hot pot restaurant, went to a really fancy mall at Wangfujing street, bought coffee and doughnuts at a Chinese bakery(they had the meat floss at this bakery too, but again I didn't dare try). We bought subway fare cards, used a little help from someone who understood English to figure out which train to board, packed - along with all the other sardines - onto the train and disembarked one stop later at Tien An Min East train station. We walked a few blocks into a hutong, until we realized we were going the wrong way; were led into an "art museum" where a young man with excellent English tried to sell us "his" paintings, which he said were inspired by Confucius. Strangely enough Confucius also must have inspired the guy across the street selling the exact same paintings. All of the shops and shop owners squarely targeting sightseers come to see the Capital sights. Nevertheless, we made our way and took some photos with Mao and Tien An Min in the distance. We got much attention, and for the first time I got a little nervous about the commotion, pulling the boys aside at one point and giving them a card saying, "Take me to the US embassy," just in case we got separated. We were solicited at every turn, "I take you on tour."

"Ever been to Great Wall, I take you there."

"You are from America, yes?"

Thousands of people were visiting the square on this beautiful Spring day and seemingly all of the ones who spoke English wanted to separate us from our money. At one point a man even tried to pass rolled up papers into Parker's hand, and Joanne and I had to get loud. "No," we barked at both the man and Parker simultaneously, indicating to the former to leave us the heck alone, and to the latter, not to take the papers. When we passed through the Red Army security post, however, the tension eased and the only "trouble" we had to deal with was the extensive attention paid to the "baybee" we were traveling with. On more than one occasion, smiling visitors asked with a picture taking gesture if they could have a photo with the baby. One friend would click the photo and the other, peace sign fingers extended, kneeling behind Bennett, would smile for the camera. Bennett obliged them with a smile back every time.

We walked along the mote of the Forbidden City, then when Bennett's little legs were running out of juice, we hopped a cab to Beihei park. Beihei is an ancient garden dating back over 1000 years, which was opened to the public in 1925. Beihei stands just West of The Forbidden City on an islet in the middle of a lake. The gardens are an escalating series of Buddhist "temples"; each one accessible by a lengthy staircase and terraced higher and higher up the hill. Bennett squealed,"Mama, forget the Great Wall, this The Great Steps of China." We climbed and looked and climbed and looked, and when we reached the White Dagoba at the top of the islet, we learned what all of the fuss was about. On this clear blue-sky day, an apparent rarity in this city, we had an incredible 360 degree view of the metro area from it's highest "mountain" in the dead center of the city grid. Among jade and cherry blossoms, giant mountains off in the distance, the city spread as far as I could see in every direction. Twenty plus million people whizzed around in cars, bikes and buses. The incredible balance of ancient structures, the real living of the hutongs, and the enormous and hyper-modernly architectured buildings along the skyline, strangely made me think of home. I found myself thinking about what it must feel like for the folks from here to embark on a 7000 milel trip to New York or Washington DC and see our far younger history in our buildings, people and neighborhoods.

We climbed back down, passed on the paddle boats as the sun was going down, along with the temperature, and we set out in search of a cab to deliver is back to our suburban home in River Garden.

As we walked along the street we had one more look at the forbidden city and wedged our way through the quickly growing mass of photographers to catch our own shot of an incredible reflection in the mote. I guess I wasn't the only one reminiscing about home, as Devon, looking at the mote with wide eyes said, "hey Daddy, that looks just like the reflecting pool at the Washington Monument."  

On the Town

The Hot Pot

Packed like sardines

Confucius Say

The Forbidden City

Tien An Men 

The Mote

The Great Steps

The View from the Top


Friday, March 18, 2011

Congratulations! Dragon Award for Parker Koch

The Dragon Award is presented to any student in the UES who performs at a high level, or shows significant improvement in one of the following categories.

1.    Academic achievement (This includes all subject areas and all aspects of the curriculum)

2.    Social interactions and citizenship (This includes interactions inside and outside the classroom)

3.    Presentation or performance (This includes regular classes and special events)


I am very pleased to present this award to your child this week. The Dragon Award is displayed at the red carpet area for one week. Please feel welcome to come and see your child's award displayed in this area.




Dal Sohi
Upper Elementary School Principal