It's a rainy afternoon here in Dong Bei Zhong Guo (Northeast China). Today is the birthday I share with my oldest daughter, Eleanor. Eleanor gets a new Barbie and a Chinese Christmas outfit today. My birthday gift to myself is to hang around our dumpy efficiency apartment jamming to Neko Case, sipping tea, washing clothes, and doing nothing in particular. We moved to China three weeks ago and every moment here has been filled with activity. I'm exhausted from taking in new sites and learning new words, from helping my children adjust and from socializing with new and old friends who are also here.
But I am thoroughly happy. Happy happy happy birthday to me. Moving to China is the second best birthday gift I ever received (Eleanor is #1). Life has generally turned in our favor since our arrival.
We are here for my husband's job. His company provides a van and driver for us. No one wants to end up in a Chinese court, least of all your average major international corporation. So we are not allowed to drive. This is just as well, because Chinese traffic is just as advertised: chaotic. My Chinese friends tell me it is especially bad in our Northeast China city, Dalian. My Chinese friends love to tell me what a backwater place Dalian is and I'm beginning to get a handle on the regional attitudes. Shanghai is China's New York, Beijing is its Washington, D.C., or maybe Boston. These cities' residents have a lot of hometown pride.
I've had a hard time identifying a single analogous American city, but Dalian is a bit like a cross between Detroit and Atlantic City with a dash of any large port city you might know and a pinch of any city hoping to ride the high-tech wave up to prosperity. There are car engine factories, tractor factories, shipyards, software "parks," chemical plants, tourist beaches, golf courses, and a contingent of foreigners mostly from northeast Asia: Japanese, Korean, and Russian. Bitter cold weather is approaching and the blue-collar feel is enhanced by a layer of icy snow over ubiquitous rusted-out metal.
We love our driver, Qi Tong Lin. He is trying to learn English and we are trying to learn Chinese and both sides are having fun. Yesterday I spent 30 delightful minutes explaining "Sheng Dan Lao Ren" to him. "Sheng Dan Lao Ren" is the old man of Christmas, or Santa Claus. We were laughing because my youngest was in the car and had no clue what we were talking about. I was telling him that Santa Claus only gives the gifts, I provide them.
Chinese is my new secret language for discussing the kids in front of them, but hopefully not for long. Hazel started preschool at a school which both non-Chinese and Chinese children are allowed to attend. Hazel is the first American there. She is fully immersed in the Chinese language and we hope she comes out fluent. For now, she is clearly confused. The other day, after picking her up from preschool, I was walking along, holding her sweet little hand. "Mommy, what am I speaking?" she asked. I suppressed a major guffaw and said, "Hazel, you're speaking English."
Hazel is actually our secret weapon for survival in China. Everywhere we go, the women want to touch her, hold her, talk to her. She's bearing up well under the pressure and we are working on teaching her to say, "Wo yao jiao zi." I want dumplings. This phrase alone, uttered by our adorable little kid, could feed us for the next two years here.
One afternoon in a new favorite dumpling restaurant a man spotted my pale little American children and insisted on posing for a photo with us and with his daughters. We all whipped out our camera and took photos. Small steps in international diplomacy: acknowledging that each other's kids are cute.
International "ke ai de hai zi men" diplomacy
Both girls are stifled in our temporary apartment. Their only hobby recently has been fighting with each other. We are supposed to move into a glamorous new high-rise any day, but the building suffers from that traditional Chinese problem: air quality problems. I suppose every chemical in the book is used in Chinese construction and our new apartment, while looking beautiful, smells like a glue store.
So we're in a one-bedroom efficiency in the Kerren Hotel. We get a maid and a breakfast buffet to help us deal with the constriction. The maid empties the washer every morning while I am dropping the kids at school, so I don't have to hang my own laundry. But I do have to wait for it to dry. I now know why it took jeans so many years to become popular in the third world. Jim's jeans take 24 hours to dry and when they are all dry, I can stand them up without him in them.