Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Things Noticed

I've been in America for 3 weeks now. The holidays are over, Dave has returned to Shanghai, and the girls and I have settled into a lovely routine which includes sending them downstairs to play with Nana and Poppa when they wake up early and allowing Mommy to go right back to sleep for another hour or so. We're doing playdates with old friends, running errands and meeting with physicians. Although the girls are spending a lot of these cold winter days playing happily in Nana and Poppa's house, enjoying their company, their books, their cat and their toys.

As I've been back, there are a few things I've noticed. I haven't come up with a more interesting way to write about them, so please allow me to simply list and describe.

The Simple Things
As I drove myself to an appointment, I quizzed myself on whether I miss having a driver this month or particularly enjoy driving myself. I thought this through in great detail, as the appointment was a fair distance from home. Having a driver has some amazing benefits, including leaving kids in the car while I run in to shops, sleeping in the backseat on the way home from school, and never worrying about a parking spot. Driving myself has selling points as well, including making quick decisions and changes of plans, choosing and randomly changing my music, and having my feet warmed by the floor heater. I vascillated on the subject, and decided to expand its scope. There are many things I miss about life in Shanghai, and many things I miss about life in St. Louis. As I drove, the life in Shanghai gained momentum and I felt ready to return to our home when a song came on the radio. The song spoke from a country music perspective about simple living in a hard economy and sang specifically about the simple things - country fried chicken, embraces from family, sitting on the front porch and watching the stars. And it occured to me that although my life abroad is certainly a good life with all of my needs well met, I am actually a person of simple pleasures who really enjoys a cheap Mexican dinner and a Grand Slam breakfast at Denny's; spending time with the people I love, the people who love my children; and being in God's creation, with opportunities to see the magnitude of stars filling a country sky. The simple pleasures are what can not be replaced in Shanghai.

It seems that I have created a new -ism for my children. Our life in Shanghai is not particularly multicultural. We seem to interact primarily with Americans and other Westerners like us - Australians, Kiwis and such. We also interact quite a bit with English-speaking Chinese, and have enjoyed building these relationships tremendously. I have a wonderful respect and enjoyment of Dave's co-workers, our landlord, our ayi and some of the women I have met through Bible study. But I'll readily admit that I don't enjoy interactions with people who speak no English. I have no expectation that people around me will speak English, and I do often find people willing to work with my limited Mandarin - ability to communicate my needs is not the problem, and I often find myself quite patient in that regard. No, ability to be friendly seems to be my problem.
Case in point: On one of our first days in Chicago, L-- and I ran to Dunkin Donuts to bring home breakfast for the family. On a cold Chicago morning, the staff were quite friendly, saying hello to me and to L--. My daughter shrunk close to me and wouldn't speak, so I prodded her to respond with a simple hello. The staff appreciated her effort and offered her a donut hole. I encouraged her to take it, and to ask for one for her sister at home. She said a quiet thank-you and left with a smile on her face.
Contrast this with frequent episodes in China, where people stop to talk to our little girls. L-- will often shrink away as people talk to her, and my response has become You don't have to speak to people if you don't want to. In America, I find it important to teach my daughter to be friendly to strangers. In China, I find my privacy immensely important and try to shield my children from prying strangers. Like in Dunkin Donuts, people in China are likely to offer my children food. This food often comes as wrapped sweets, but also sometimes as a handful of whatever the person may be eating - sunflower seeds, shrimp chips and the like. But different from the experience in Dunkin Donuts, where I encouraged her to say thank-you and accept generosity in kind, in China I tend to smile in a mildly annoyed fashion and almost immediately remove the given object.
I do not react this way toward everyone, I have noticed. The distinction seems to be people who I can not understand - and please note that this has been an unconscious distinction until just recently. Certainly no -ism teaching was intended; only guarding my children from what often feels like improper assaults on their privacy.
I am coming to realize that in friendliness, Chinese and Americans have a lot in common. And that my attitude toward strangers in America ought to translate to my attitude toward strangers in China. So far, I have mistaught. I often catch L-- talking about what language her imaginary playmates speak. It is never Chinese.

I do feel fully bi-homal. Although life in St. Louis has continued - favorite restaurants have closed, friends have become pregnant and given birth while we've been away - life in St. Louis has also remained primarily the same. Were we to move back into our home today, we could step back into our old life, friends, church and neighborhood and feel entirely at home. And although that offers a wonderful amount of comfort and a fantastic place to spend 1 month every year, it also confirms our desire to live outside of St. Louis.

The life I lead in Shanghai is one I would disdain were I leading it in America.
In America, I choose to live in a racially and economically mixed neighborhood and attend a racially, ethnically and economically mixed community
In Shanghai, I choose to live and participate in an expatriate community made up primarily of extremely wealthy people from America, Australia, New Zealand or Europe (i.e.: 1 race and very few ethnic groups).
In America, I belong to communities where my participation is valued and important. Where gatherings are often social, but often circle around a purpose and a need.
In Shanghai, I have no set responsibilites outside of my family and belong to no real communities. Although my daughter's school has an enjoyable community, I am no integral member and offer nothing beyond my and my daughter's sparkling personalities.
In America, I eat and live simply. My expenses are low, my budget is low, and my food is simple.
In Shanghai, I eat and live expensively. My food and clothes are imported, and purchased at whatever price the store may choose to name.

Although many of these differences simply come with the choice of living as an expatriate, rather than ingratiating myself in the local culture, I still feel uncomfortable with the weatlhy and rather decadent lifestyle I am leading. I haven't come up with the right way to fix this problem, as my schedule is already full with my children's schedules.

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