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. 

Recess
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

Friday, 18 August 2017

Gypsy Rover came over the hill...

Life is currently this crazy mix of deep thoughts and day to day living. Deep thoughts are what happen when you have all this time to listen to podcasts or read news articles but your husband works 10+ hours a day and your friends are in awkward time zones and your neighbours don’t speak English and your daily companions are two preschoolers and a cat.

Day to day living is what happens when you’ve been stationary long enough to feel the occasional, blissful twinge of boredom and the beautiful sameness of slipping into a routine. When we first moved here the routine kept changing because Shanghai is always changing. Now, however, we are familiar enough with our neighbourhood and the city that we can actually make plans.

Long, long ago when David and I first started dating we used to talk about The Future. He warned me back then that he wasn’t one for the white picket fence, but was more attracted to a gypsy rover sort of life. I felt the pieces of my future shifting a bit. What did I really want?

I grew up in a small town on Vancouver Island. The goal for most of my set was to Leave Town. Town only has a one-screen movie theatre. Shopping options were limited and cultural options felt limited, and then chance of one staying in town and marrying up seemed limited, and mostly, I think, so many of us need to use those late teenage years to spread our wings. My first year away from home was a time of great imagination & dreaming, which first allowed me to explore the ideas of how my future could look.

So, back to 2004 and the white picket fence. At this point in time we were both working in somewhat similar roles, namely at thrift stores. David’s was a non-profit and mine was a for-profit but there is a sort of thrift-store vibe among the young retail associates in Victoria. Many of us were modern hippies, or I guess better characterized as your general West Coast early millenials, living in cheap apartments and being sort of Bohemian and just having a good time the way one can with few bills, a decent amount of pocket money, and a city to explore. Dave and I used to take day trips, on foot, to the surrounding Gulf Islands and talk about the day we would backpack, or drive, around Canada, working here and there and seeing the country etc.

Grad School spurred us on the adventure but then as we got deeper into it and discovered that David had some sought after talent things had to shift yet again. It’s not every day that one gets a chance to move to England. And here we are in our early-to-mid-thirties and we’re doing the scholarly Bohemian gypsy rover thing, which is slightly more upscale than our original dreams, and involves hauling around a lot more books, but still involves rundown abodes and a strange mishmash of household possessions. A lot of our friends have this sort of settled adult style, whether they’re renting or owning, and I’m still thinking about whether or not I even want to bother buying curtains because will we bother packing them on our next international move.

After living this way for so long it’s hard to imagine living any other way. To be in the same place for more than three or four years? Shocking! The kids even take it as a matter of course that there will be a “next apartment” or a new country to explore. We had that brief, not brief enough, spell in Burnaby which was a really good view into what being settled with few choices would be like. Apparently I don’t mind big cities if they’re new but stick me in Toronto or Greater Vancouver and the misery just pours in. Living in a tiny apartment because the rents are too high is very different to living in a tiny apartment because you’re living abroad and you’d rather save on the rent to go and travel. I’m not saying that I never want to settle down but when we do, IF we do, I’m hoping that it will be on more comfortable terms.

(I say more comfortable terms but these are the material things I'm enjoying in our new place)









Sunday, 21 May 2017

Our First Shanghai Excursion: People's Square & The Bund

It is easy to let the stress and work of a move become overwhelming, and once that happens it's hard to remember why on earth it made sense to throw life into disarray. In an international move this is perhaps more so, because everything is so much more stressful and different and homesickness is always waiting ‘round the corner. A good cure for this is to spend at least one day a week doing some fun exploration in the new locale.

As a veteran international mover™, David was well aware of this and made sure that our first weekend in Shanghai involved some relaxation and exploration time. He proposed that we go to People’s Square, followed by Nanjing Road and ending in a walk on The Bund. It was perfect!

People’s Square is rather central to Shanghai and provides a good focal point for downtown Shanghai. The square is a really interesting mix of beautiful gardens, entertainment, food, and cultural practices. David planned our exit from the Metro perfectly, meaning that we came up from underground into the middle of a beautiful garden, with the phenomenal skyscrapers of the downtown towering in our peripheral vision:


We wandered through the garden and then came across a little amusement park: 


From there we walked on to the Marriage Market that is open for business on Saturday afternoons. I tried to get my mum to set up a stall for my brother but she didn’t think he’d appreciate the gesture. 


The end destination of our trip to People’s Square was the Bund, which is one of the “this is Shanghai” landscapes that you can use to identify the city in music videos etc. It was lovely to stroll along the river with the historic buildings of the International Settlement on one side and the futuristic architecture of Pudong on the other.

Pudong
International Settlement

The funniest part of our day happened on the Bund. My mum wanted to rest her hip so she decided to sit down while the rest of us explored. When I came back to find her I was surprised to see her surrounded by a crowd of people. She was such a novelty with her blonde hair that there was a queue of people lined up to take selfies with her. I figured fair was fair so I started snapping pictures of them.


From People’s Square to the Bund is the Nanjing Road area. It’s a jumble of historic & futuristic architecture, luxury Western shops and Chinese malls, and is a marvelous exercise in people watching.

Old-school apartments
Laundry drying on a street corner
Hydration break at a French-style cafe. The cups were so cute!
Art Deco!!!!
 


Saturday, 20 May 2017

Clothing Dilemma? I hope not!

I just placed my first online clothing order for stuff I can’t get in China. Hopefully it goes smoothly, as my one big “oh no” about moving here was how a family of North American Giants would be able to find clothing in a country known for much more slender and shorter people. It’s a wee bit disappointing, seeing all the fabulous clothing everywhere and knowing that no matter how much weight I lose I’ll never be able to fit it because body type & height are against me, but at least there’s always accessories to feed to the instant-gratification need and online shopping for the rest!