Friday, 15 March 2019

Home and Away

Death has closed a chapter in my life. This was the first time I’d left from Canada without my father’s blessing. It was a noticeable absence, an irreparable change. 

Yet Shanghai has provided a strange comfort and familiarity. As I left the office today the air was heavy with pollution and humidity. The scent of sewage mixed lightly with that of fried noodles and Shanghai’s characteristic sweet & oily sauces. It sounds strange but it was redolent with the promise of adventure, of Friday nights spent wandering in the warm dusk, of weekend galleries & parks. 

I can’t recall dad ever telling me he’d wish I’d settle down. The first half of his life was spent in frequent moves, so maybe he understood this more than most. And he certainly liked to travel. 

When he died, it felt like there was this immense external pressure to move home, as if some people thought these past two years were a glorified vacation rather than a family’s life. I realize it was meant to be supportive, but I found it so isolating because it was a further reminder that one of the few people I never needed to explain myself to was gone. 

So here I am, back in Shanghai, trying to sort out another round of life’s tangles. Knowing the stress I’d be returning to made it so tempting to just give up and not return, but we both decided we couldn’t do that to the cat. And maybe that’s why there was such strange comfort in the heavy scents of an urban dusk, a breath of the familiar cutting across my distracted mind.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Love Came Down at Christmas

December is one of my high times of the year for feeling homesick, or perhaps heartsick is more accurate. This year it has really led me to question what I was searching for.

The best family Christmas I can remember as an adult was 2007. I flew home from Edmonton and it was so good to be back on the Island. It was one of the last Christmases we were all together and all healthy, or at least healthy enough to celebrate. It was a Christmas for bundling up all the good memories of childhood and experiencing them one last time. 

Christmas 2008 turned out to be my last “grown child” Christmas at home, although I didn’t know it at the time. Part of me wishes I had known it, although mostly I’m glad I didn’t because it let me experience the time without suffering too much from pre-emptive nostalgia, a condition I regularly suffer from! The travel was stressful because it would not stop snowing and I was incredibly stressed in general, because my time in Toronto was not going as well as I had hoped and I knew I had to go back and see things through to the end without any idea of what the end would be. But in between these moments of stress were so many good times, just the goodness of being at home and feeling secure no matter what storms, the real and the imaginary, were raging around. The New Year’s Eve engagement didn’t hurt either. 

I can stop my thoughts here and think yes, these are the things that I am homesick for, of course they are. I love the home I grew up in, and I don’t just mean the people in it. To have lived 17 years in the same spot, to know what every creak and groan of the house means, to know all the hidden treasures of the property & neighbourhood… these are the things that nourished my being. As someone who lives in a near constant state of panic it is incredibly important to have this safe space that helps ground me in reality. Yet time marches on, and I cannot return to those Christmases. We are all too different and disease has left a long-sorrowful mark among us. There are always now two people missing yet not gone, living in a shadow land, and no amount of wishing in the world will bring those days back of my aunt’s house smelling of turkey & gravy while four of us crammed into the entry way, trying to struggle out of boots & coats and get all the greetings out of the way, as if we hadn’t just seen each other the week before. I cannot share with my children the fun of my Gramma’s house, full of strange nooks & crannies, the platters of Ukrainian sausage & cheese & headcheese & cold roast beef & cookies & cherries served up as a “snack” while we played noisy family games and let our warmth shine out against the darkness. My children must make their own memories.

When we came back to Canada I was surprised to find that homesickness still returned at Christmastime, but in those years it was a yearning for the Christmases we’d had in England. I missed the Christmas feasts, the mince pies, the Clare carol service, and ghost stories at the Leper Chapel. I missed David’s yearly goose procurement, the carefully planned appetizers, the stockpiles of port & sherry, and the Boxing Day rambles in which we walked it all off. By some sort of Christmas magic our English years always involved a 4 day holiday, although often longer. Mostly, I think, I just missed the two of us being together and, at least for a season, having it all figured out.

I know very well from experience that the first year in a new place is the hardest. Everything is new and it is hard to figure out which traditions to cling to, which to let go, and which new ones to adopt. This year it felt like so much had to be let go due to circumstance. No appetizers, because we have no oven in which to cook them. Ditto for the Christmas bird. No snow. No extended family. No country-wide holiday. And while the lack of marketing made it easier to hit the Advent vibe, by Gaudete Sunday I was missing the total overwhelmingness of Christmas that we are used to.

Our church put on a Nativity Play. Walter was a shepherd, Annie an angel. Suddenly I was reliving something I was certain would be gone forever, the strangeness of putting on Christmas costumes and living out the nativity as a child. The dissatisfaction over not getting to be a member of the Holy Family (thank you, Walter) and the pride of being brave and standing up in front of all those people. After the play we went out as a family and just enjoyed the day together. When the sun set we enjoyed the spectacle of lights that is Xuhui, especially the added sparkle that came from some of the Christmas displays outside the malls. 

Christmas Eve Day is my big homesick day. I think this was always my favourite day of Christmas holidays as a child. There is still so much to look forward to – the candlelit church service, the one present I was allowed to open before bed, the time with friends & family, the hope of Christmas presents… It is a day for trying to stay warm, throwing on the Christmas music, and finishing the preparations for the next few days. This year, tho, it was the day after the day I had food poisoning. I doubted that it would be anything more than a day of frustration. Presents weren’t wrapped, weren’t even all purchased, and I didn’t know if I could make it to Mass, and the kids were squirrely from being kept in the day before, and there weren’t even eggnog & cookies to comfort myself with. Not even cheese!

David came to the rescue. He’s done this regularly over the past decade or so and probably much more than he gets credit for. Somehow he got us all into church clothes and out the door. He convinced me to do the grocery shop early, even tho’ it meant he had to carry two baguettes around for 8 hours. He got us to Xuhui with enough time to grab a small lunch before Mass and finish the Christmas shopping after. And more than anything else, he met every tentative negatively questioning comment of mine with a positive reminder. Neither of us thought that Christmas Eve Mass, at 5pm, would be crowded so when we were crammed to the sides of the narthex with no view of the church I couldn’t help but feel discouraged. It turned out that it was prime viewing space for the procession of choir children, all decked in red & white robes, followed by deacons bearing a litter of flowers and the Christ-child and, last of all, the priests in cloth-of-gold surrounded by a cloud of incense. My heart ache stopped right around then as we were swept with the crowd into the heart of the cathedral where O Holy Night was soaring above the bustle & confusion of thousands of people getting ready for Mass.

On Christmas Day as we sat around our table with our new friend, Ihri, I realized that it really did feel like Christmas. We were all laughing about something and the kids were coming and going with various Christmas presents in hand to show Ihri. We could have stayed closed off this Christmas, family only thank you, trying hard to capture some vague sense of what has already passed. But instead we pushed forward and I ended up discovering what it was that I was seeking – the sharing of Christmas joy with family and friends. Homes, people, traditions shall pass away but love? Love came down at Christmas.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Shanghai City Zoo

We’ve been in China for about eight months now. That is crazy. It doesn’t feel like eight months, but instead like forever and like no time at all. In other words, it feels relatively settled. I survived, barely, one of the hottest summers on record with almost no air conditioning. I managed to get my own phone number. I know and sort of pronounce the following words:

谢谢 (Xièxiè) – Thank you
你好 (Nǐ hǎo) – Hello
再见 (Zàijiàn) – Goodbye
美式 (Měishì) – Americano
奶茶(Nǎichá) – Milk Tea
煎饼 (Jiānbing) – the ultimate crepe, stuffed with crispy wonton, pickle, greens, hoisin, chilli sauce, and possibly meat. If you visit me I will make you try this. They are made fresh to order while you watch.
月饼 (Yuèbǐng) – mooncake, ie a small pie with a custard, dried fruit/nut, or meat filling.

It’s a pretty small list, I know, but the Chinese tones throw me for a loop every time. I can also recognize various characters that I only know the English meaning of so my reading comprehension is a little higher than my speaking ability. My dad used to tell me that by 6 months in a foreign country you can gain enough of the common tongue for basic fluency. He hadn’t reckoned with Chinese!

One of our favourite things to do in Shanghai is to go to the Shanghai City Zoo. We’ve already been three times. The admission price is very reasonable and the zoo is a giant green park with lots of space for the kids to run and play. There’s even an amusement park, although our attempts to go on a ride “up high” to celebrate Ascension Day were a bit of a bust due to panicking children.

It’s hard to say what the kids’ favourite part is. The usually like to run to the aquarium and reptile area, because they recognize some of the fish from Finding Nemo and enjoy the good creepy thrill of seeing crocodiles and deadly snakes up close. 

Emily really enjoys the monkeys but Walter views them as competition. Last time we took them he very pointedly ignored the monkeys and was heard to say “I can run and climb better than a monkey so I don’t understand why everyone is watching them”. He mostly stumped about, scowling fiercely & swinging a stick. Meanwhile Emily and one of the orangutans shared a special time of bonding of their shared sense of humour, laughing at Emily’s capers. 

The bear area is, of course, one family favourite. The zoo has pandas and both children adore them, although I prefer the smaller red pandas to the giant ones. When we feel homesick we cheer up with a peep at the Grizzly, brown, and black bears. The bears stay true to insolent form and we always get a laugh from seeing their blatant disregard for good public manners, although it does sadden me to see these great beasts penned up. Funny that I do not share the same sentiments for the lions and tigers…I suppose it is a reaction to what you’ve seen free and wild.

We always pack a picnic lunch as there are tonnes of nooks & crannies in which to sit down and eat, either by various animals or just overlooking some of the water features or meadows. There is even a bit of a goat farm where you can feed veggies to the goats or play on the playground – a great space to get the wiggles out prior to the long trip back home. And, of course, no visit to the zoo is considered successful unless the small ones get an ice cream.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Remembering the Dead & Dying

Death is on my mind a lot this November. A friend’s mom just died. An acquaintance’s mum just died. Each night we say a prayer for the dead as part of our November devotions. And aside from these more immediate reminders of mortality and loss there is the ever present background hum of my aunt and my Gramma, both in care homes and both ever so slowly slipping away. There is also the myriad of friends and relatives in varying stages of illness and disease.

To live abroad is to relinquish most claims of control over the lives of those we love. To live abroad is to grieve each goodbye. 

When the phone rings, which is almost always unexpectedly, there is that fateful pause of knowing it must be bad news, because no one pays long distance fees in this age of Skype just to say hi. My mum and I used to comfort ourselves with how quickly I could get home in an emergency. But now? From Europe or China – 24-48 hours if I’m lucky…and I have seen times where it has been unlucky and where friends have scrambled and schemed and despite their best efforts arrived home much too late.

When friends and family are grieving or in the midst of serious illness there is almost nothing that you can do. You cannot help in any tangible way. You cannot bring food or do laundry or watch children. You cannot even keep watch with them by day, because there is that pesky time difference. You can, of course, pray and send notes of encouragement and hope, but you know that no matter how much those are good things to do they do not really take away the grinding strain of trying to survive the present pain. No matter how much your heart yearns to be there, just to sit and be present, you cannot.

It is isolating to grieve alone, or mostly alone. We’ve lost aunts & uncles while living away from home and there is a strange emptiness with no real closure. You can only grieve so much with family over the phone or via email. Chances are you can’t go to the funeral. No one around you will know whom you’re grieving and as sympathetic as friends are it’s not quite the same as spending those hours with the people who shared your love.

This year as part of our liturgical exercises we started a Book of Remembrance. On nights when we can, we sit down and pick the name of someone who has died. We talk about the person, sharing stories and saying prayers, and I record the best of this in our book along with the person’s name and dates. This has been a beautiful way to keep memory alive and to bring the children into an understanding of the Communion of Saints and our belief that gone from this earth does not mean gone forever. While it has been difficult to focus so much on death this month, so long and dreary and so full of loss, it has been like a candle putting one small light into the darkness.

Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies;
Heav’n’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Kindergarten: 5 Weeks In

The children have been in Chinese Kindergarten for a month now. Schooling has, of course, been a hot topic under our roof, and really this should be no surprise. If my reading of literature and biography has taught me anything it’s that how, when, and where to school your children has been a subject of discussion and worrying for centuries. I find some comfort in adding my woes to the sum total of human experience.
First day of school. It's 6am or something ridiculous like that. 

The initial going was hardest on little Emily. She has had a hard year, having gone from having her daddy at home with her every day to having that same daddy working the long hours that come with Academic territory. And, since our flat is of modest size, it is generally best for all of us if most of those long hours take place at his office. It’s not far away but it’s not at home and for Annie that makes all the difference. To then find that she is no longer to be at home every day with the security of Mama and brother was a cold dose. But she has now made friends at school, English-speaking friends, and she occasionally has a recess with Walter, and she generally basks in a warm glow of knowing that her teachers find her smart and adorable and her friends find her kind and fun. 

September homework assignment: build a house

With Walter it is harder to tell. He tends to be a bit of a loner by choice, preferring only the company of those who can come up with better games than his own or those who are willing to fall under his instruction. He tends to be frustrated with any interference in his plans and his main complaint is that the other children won’t leave him or his setups alone. He doesn’t mind going to school and he has been learning to write numbers, letters, and characters, but it is hard to say if he enjoys it or if he just does it as his duty, a box to tick off before he can go home and get back to the real business of infrastructure, engineering, and dinosaur battles. I do know that he heartily enjoys the sports days, for he is stronger and faster than most, if not all, of the kids in his class and he loves to run and to win. So while he may have his focus mostly on his own projects, rather than what his peers are doing, it seems that his natural athletic talent will help him from becoming too isolated as he tends to be in demand for sporty things. 

One of Walter's at-school projects in the lead up to National Day/Golden Week

September homework assignment: make a traditional Chinese opera mask

School is doing what we’d hoped – teaching the children practical skills like buttoning buttons and putting on socks, giving them a taste of independent interaction, and letting them have a safe space to learn how to listen to authority. Their little brains are soaking in Chinese, even if they don’t realize it, which was one of our goals in enrolling them at the Chinese Kindergarten rather than an international one. Our family interests of art, music, and literature are covered off in our usual way, by going on outings and talking with the children. In our spare time at home we are teaching them to read and write English, and by helping them with their little homework assignments I am learning a wee bit of Chinese.

Monday, 11 September 2017

In which I learn to value running water

Let’s talk about clean water. I grew up on a half acre in a rural area so we had all this beautiful, sweet well water growing up. I can legitimately act all snobby about the chlorine taste of city water and, being from clean-water Canada I can also be all snobby about drinking bottled water.

In England I wasn’t a huge fan of water, because I do like my water ice cold and with our tiny fridge and the general lack of ice cubes it just wasn’t a thing that was that delicious outside of the office water cooler. But the water was fine to use, of course, and we had pretty much the same situation in Germany.

So now, Shanghai. One thing that guidebooks and the internet all agree on is that you can’t drink the water and even the locals don’t drink the water and you can’t just boil it safe. It’s not that Shanghai doesn’t clean its water, it’s just that by the time it travels through aging pipes it picks up various metals and things that can’t be boiled out and which, in some cases, are actually made worse by heating.

When we first moved here it was just one of those things. But then the summer heat hit and it hit hard. By the time the highs were hitting 42c we were easily going through 10 litres a day. It was becoming a struggle just to keep enough water in the house. I could either sign up for a water delivery service, look into having a water purifier installed (and the jury is out on how effective they are), or bring home 4-or-5 litre jugs. I opted for the last one but with the heat it was a real chore to ensure that there was always enough clean water every day and every night. It meant either a sore back from carrying too much or multiple trips out in the blistering heat.

This was enough to make me realize how much we really take for granted back home. Turn on a tap and you can have as much fresh water as you like! I mean, we know that people elsewhere in the world don’t have access to clean water, but we don’t really know what that means. I still don’t really know what it means, because the farthest I had to walk for clean drinking water was to the nearest convenience store, which was rather painful in the heat but still doable.

Recently, we’ve had some improvement works at our apartment building to update the water pipes, which has meant that the water to our building is sometimes turned off. Since we can’t drink the water I didn’t think it would be that inconvenient but I was wrong. No washing clothes or bodies or dishes or floors until the water is turned back on. It just makes the house feel so dirty. Of course this was just a minor inconvenience for the greater good and the workmen were awesome about timing it outside of peak usage hours, but for those few hours it was stressful.

Clean water, piped-in water, even undrinkable but usable water… it really is a most precious gift.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

Sunday Obligation Failings

A few years ago a friend complimented me on how I managed to make Sunday Mass with my two-under-two a regular thing. “Oh yes,” I thought to myself, “I really do have that dedication to my faith”. Ha!

When Mass was a 16 minute walk from the house it was easy to go, especially when it was our little family of four going and only one child was mobile.

Sunday Morning Meltdown
During those 7 long months when we were staying with family & resettling in Canada it was easy to go, because there was always a car or a ride at disposal and family to babysit the kids if they were too out of sorts to go.

Note my tired, tired eyes 
Unfortunately the last three years have been a new reality of churches far away and hard to get to, of ill health and exhaustion, and of us being lucky if we make one Sunday a month as a family. *cue gasps of horror from my regularly attending Catholic friends*

I keep telling myself that it shouldn’t be this way. When I was growing up I don’t think we ever missed a Sunday. Many of my friends have young kids and no vehicles and they still manage to go regularly. Of course, comparison is the thief of joy (my latest favourite truism). And, of course, every situation is unique. I had some health problems that were making it really difficult to get out & about and these didn’t even get sorted out until a year ago, at which point I discovered that it was the health issues and not some personal moral failing that were making it all so difficult.

Now it is hard again. The 1.5hr trek across town to the nearest church. The never ending heat and the various ailments that Annie & I have contracted from it. The stress & exhaustion of settling into a new country, even tho’ I’ve done this so many times that I hardly notice it until I stop and think. I know that I need to be gentle with myself but this is something I have never been good at.

I’m pretty sure that my root sin is pride. The last three years or so have been a great lesson in humility. I can no longer take comfort in moral superiority simply because my life has been too easy, because for a long time it has *not* been easy… but at the same time I always retain that fear of too many excuses. It’s like that sledgehammer of a truism “everyone is busy” that you can sometimes here in response to claims that your life has been busy so you’ve failed xyz.

At this point in time I’m not sure what my plan is. Perhaps I have no plan. Life changes very quickly in Shanghai. We try to keep up with liturgical celebrations at home. We pray. We sing hymns. We make plans for Mass every week and more often than not, not going is determined en route when I discover that I’m just too unwell in the heat or from a questionable stomach etc. One day the heat will lessen and one day, perhaps, our stomachs will adjust to the food and then, oh yes, things will be easier. Until that day, I remember my Great Grandparents, living in Saskatchewan in the Thirties and happy to have a priest visit their township once a month.

Resting together in St Basil's Cemetary, Yorkton SK