Friday, March 13, 2009

Chinese Conversations

In my day to day life, I have very few meaningful interactions with Chinese people.  Certainly I pass them in the street and stand next to them in lines, but I rarely have a conversation.  The exception to this rule is our driver, Mr. Zhang, and our ayi, Wendy.  I spend time with each of these people on a daily basis.  And I had interesting conversations with both of them over the last few days.

Mr. Zhang speaks impressive English.  He makes no claims at fluency, but he understands many words that surprise me - words like "music" and "party."  Likewise, I speak very little Mandarin, but I often understand the words that he uses with me.  His car has a CD player and yesterday I had popped The Muppets in for the girls to listen to the music.  I noticed right away that the CD ought to play in stereo, and we could only hear half of each conversation.  In a quick effort to change the Balance of the stereo, I leaned into the front seat.  From this point on, Mr. Zhang and I carried on a conversation in two separate languages.  We each spoke our native languages, picking certain terms from the other's language to be clear at times, but primarily communicating through simple words and tone of voice.  He explained to me that the right speakers don't work, and I explained to him what the Balance and Fade functions on the stereo mean.

By contrast, Wendy speaks quite good English.  I would compare conversations with Wendy to a conversation with a 5 year old.  Wendy is fluent in English, but she speaks with a limited vocabulary.  Over lunch today, she told me many stories from her family and I shared some stories from our family.  Sharing such stories with simple vocabulary can be challenging, but learning her stories and seeing her reaction to mine is amazing.

Wendy lives with her husband's family, as is common in China.  I learned today that her husband's sister (Wendy's sister-in-law) lives in Xinjiang.  Xinjiang is the furthest place in China from Shanghai.  In fact, Urumqi (the capital in Xinjiang) is the city further from an ocean than any other city in the world.  It is a 6-7 hour flight from Shanghai to Urumqi in Xinjiang.  I asked why his sister lives so far away, and she explained that his family was forced to migrate to a village in Xinjiang under Mao Zetong.  Mao ran many destructive programs, one of which sent educated people and their as yet uneducated children to live in the countryside and learn the life of peasants.  While these educated people worked on farms, universities doors were closed and hospitals and government offices were run by peasants.  The country spiraled quickly into an amazing chaos, furthered dramatically by other such destructive programs.  Wendy's in-laws worked in a river, standing in rushing cold water most days - and now her mother-in-law can not wring dry a towel or go for a walk.  She lives in pain, having spent years doing tasks with no real purpose.

Wendy's sister-in-law married a man from Xinjiang, and so was unable to return to Shanghai with her family.  She had a baby in Xinjiang, and she noticed early that the baby was jaundiced with yellow skin.  She took her baby to the local doctor, who told her that yellow skin is quite normal in babies and sent her home.  Two months later, she took the baby to the hospital.  The yellow skin had not gone away and the baby was sick.  The hospital told her that her baby would die - it was too sick to be helped.  The baby remained in the hospital for 20 days and died at 3 months old.  I can not imagine that babies die from jaundice in Western hospitals, and the story shocked me.

I told Wendy that we are adopting a child from China.  She did not understand for quite some time, and then seemed surprised.  She knew orphanages as places that feed and clothe babies whose parents do not want them or can not care for them.  She had no idea that Western families adopt babies from China;  and further, she was quite surprised that we would want to.  She ask why, and explained that a Chinese family would not adopt a child.  After I told her that many American families would not adopt a child either, she seemed less surprised.  Then she looked around our apartment for a moment, and said "This child will be very lucky."  

I gave the standard line, "I know we will be very lucky to have her in our home."

She nodded, hearing only a line.  She asked why we would wait 2 years for the baby, and I explained the waiting list - that there are more families who want babies than babies.  She smiled and said, "All these babies in the orphanages will be very lucky."

Although in this country I am rich, in my own country I am middle-class.  Wendy is middle-class in her country, and in that sense I had always felt something in common with her.  But her comment surprised me - my life is really so different that a child would be lucky to be raised by me rather than her own parents?  Maybe so.

I explained that babies must live in these institutions for many months, and that even the best institution is no replacement for a parent's love.  I explained that many babies do not survive to be placed in their new home.  I would hate to have explained Western adoption as a wonderful option. 

Although for our family, it certainly will be wonderful.

No comments: