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

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.

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!

Monday, 15 May 2017

Mother's Day

The internet has had its annual production of various Mother’s Day themed writings & discussions – reminders to be courteous to those who long to be mothers or whose children are not living, sorrowful reflections from those whose mothers have passed, debates about whether or not the moms of “furbabies” should be included in the celebrations, talk about gender and modern families, complaints about juggling expectations… you name it, you can find an article on it. 

Since having kids of my own, my thought on Mother’s Day is that it should be a day for treating your mother like a queen. Think of all the discomforts she suffers on a daily basis trying to make her family comfortable and give her at least ONE DAY in which she can be completely spoiled. No cooking. No errands. No chores. No breaking up fights. No having to entertain anyone but herself. Basically no doing anything she doesn’t want to do. That would be ideal. And it doesn’t have to cost a thing unless you want it to, so you don’t even have to feel like you’re participating in a great Hallmark Card Conspiracy in celebrating the day (which is cool, because although I like presents I don’t like commercialism and boy-howdy was a seeing a lot of that when the internet suggestions for Mother’s Day in my neck of the woods all involved taking me out for very expensive meals).

I won’t say that what I’ve described is a fantasy, but I do wonder how many of us find it a reality. I doubt my mum did. Mother’s Day is a Sunday, which meant church, but to keep her from having to cook breakfast my dad would always treat us to McDonald’s before the service. Mum likes McDonalds but she hates getting up early, so I’m not sure if this was a win-win solution. After the service would be the obligatory family dinner, which on the one hand was nice because she loves her family but on the other hand meant a so-so brunch at a local hotel because that’s where my Gramma liked to go etc (my dad, with none of his family in town, would of course get to go wherever he wanted for Father’s Day). My brother and I would give her whatever paltry offerings we’d managed to make or buy, and I’m sure that these were at least treasured for the love behind them even if the quality was sadly lacking. And, having heard so many times since birth how lucky my mum was to have us (after years struggling with subfertility) I’m sure we felt our presence to be gift enough.

I wish I could say that having children and beginning to understand the supreme sacrifice of motherhood has made me a much more attentive daughter, but rather I’ve spent most of my adulthood living far away from home and struggling to get gifts/cards into the post on time (exacerbated by having my own children)… I can’t even give her the gift of having her grandchildren around on Mother’s Day, because we live halfway around the world.

Ah yes, my own two children… this is my fourth Mother’s Day and while it gets a bit easier as they grow older I am still waiting to just be adored & cherished, perhaps worshiped, for the sacrifices I daily make to keep this family trudging along -- the early mornings, the half-eaten meals, the physical pain, the immense effort of patience, the nights spent anxiously worrying, the trying to get time to myself despite constant interruptions. My first mother’s day was relatively easy – we went for lunch after Mass and I think I took a nap. Walter slept. My second mother’s day involved having to drive to the airport to pick up David, who was returning from a trip overseas, and Walter had tantrums most of the day, and I was just plain exhausted. Ditto for the tantrums for Mother’s Day the Third. Last year was pretty good, although I think there were still a more than usual amount of unpleasant incidents involving moody children and I’m pretty sure I ended up an exhausted mess by the end of the day because I tried to cook myself a fancy dinner. This year we’re keeping things super simple, as 3/4s of the household are under the weather. The tantrums are mostly avoided by this. At around noon I realized that I should’ve just booked myself into a spa for a pedicure & a massage, but it seemed a bit late to be doing that, so I bought some street food and took myself window shopping. The children aren’t in preschool so there are no adorably awkward craft-gifts coming my way and, to be honest, I don’t even know if that’s a thing in China. But we did manage dinner out and I had a lot of r&r time today which is something I never thought would come my way.

There are, of course, always sweet moments. The children will remember, on and off, that its Mother’s Day and they will give me their sweet expressions of love in between the regular murmurs of discontent. Eventually, although maybe not on the day itself, there will be presents of things I like and a card that they have laboriously worked on with some direction from David. It will probably take a couple of decades before they realize what parenting entails. It is in the difficulties of the day that I can look for the love and adoration that I wish would be more politely expressed. Each Mother’s Day when I am denied sleeping in because even if David got up they would just yell & carry-on for me until I came out is, in its way, an expression of their love. Every meltdown directed my way is rooted in their faith that I can solve all problems and heal all ills. And even my wish that for just one day the world could give me a break from my burdens and I could just exist, catered to and with no cares, is a reflection of all that I have been given to care for and cherish.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

An Average Day

We’ve passed the four week mark on our China adventure. Moving here makes the move to England look no more daunting than moving from one city to another. Unless you’ve traveled to a non-Latin-based country before I don’t think there’s any real way to grasp the complete and total language barrier and what that means. The people in our neighbourhood have been more than gracious at our fumbled attempts with Mandarin but there’s still a real “lost at sea” feeling to most of my days.

My mum, by the way, is amazing. She flew over here with me & the kids, to help us on the plane and to help us settle in. I don’t think she realized what she was in for but she made the best of everything. We did a lot of mundane, house-setting-up things during her trip and we also did some fun touristy things. I’ll write about those eventually but right now I want to capture the general feel of my days. I’m sure things will change again once I have things like a fridge or a usable kitchen (technically I can use it but in reality it’s still sporting too many creepy crawlies and without a fridge I can’t do much cooking anyway, so…). 

David’s campus happens to be across the street from our apartment (one huge benefit of having the university find our housing). His office is about a half-hour walk from our home, and it’s a nice walk. It takes about 5 minutes to get out of our apartment compound, then 10 minutes to get to the university entrance, and a remaining 15 to get to his office. Did I mention that the campus is huge? He’s about ¼ of the way into campus. And, as an aside, his office is lovely. It’s a work-space shared with 7 other researchers, which means the days aren’t lonely & isolated, and one whole wall is windows with a beautiful view of trees. And it has air conditioning.

I walk by this most mornings. It's a great start to the day.

Because we live so close to the university, and because our kitchen is not cooking-friendly at the moment, and because the food on campus is generally as inexpensive as if I cooked it myself (or perhaps more so!) the kids & I walk David to work most mornings and have breakfast with him on campus. We also have the option of buying food from a lady who sells it near the gate of our compound, which is great on mornings when we don’t want a walk to start the day. We breakfast Chinese style, so on various forms of steamed starchy things with a bit of protein and, in my case, what I can only classify as “black bean milk” since there’s no English on the package. It’s delicious although the rest of my family thinks I’m bizarre for this choice.

Work DayDavid does his work and the kids & I do ours, which at the moment is the running of the household, and trust me, it takes a considerable amount of running right now. We don’t have a washer yet and from what The Internet can tell me, Laundromats are few & far between here and with the language barrier I can’t figure out how to ask the right questions at the numerous laundry-dry-cleaners in my neighbourhood, so right now we have to travel 1hr each way to the nearest Laundromat. This is usually a once a week trip, but with the backlog of clothing (it took me nearly three weeks just for this option) it’s a little more frequent.

When not doing laundry I’m cleaning, and cleaning, and cleaning. Our apartment has several luxuries, like a bathtub, hot water in the kitchen and bathroom, and a Western toilet (although I think that’s normal for housing here anyway) but clean it was not. It’s mostly been dust served with a side of cockroaches. We’re in a subtropical climate and bugs are to be expected but I don’t fancy sharing my living space with creepy crawlies so I’ve launched a campaign of deep-cleaning, poison, and hole-sealing. It takes a long time but the results are pleasing. People who have lived here longer suggest that I just hire someone to clean it for me, but I suppose the cleaning is my form of “nesting” and it feels nice to be laying claim to a new space (above ground! with affordable rent! and lots of natural light!).

Lots of scrubbing but now a perfect breakfast nook. 
There are, of course, all the other mundane tasks that fill up the day, like getting groceries or dealing with paperwork, but laundry & cleaning tend to top the list. We also try to do sightseeing at least one day a week, and now that I’m feeling more settled and know how to get around we’ll be getting back into the swing of following the liturgical calendar more closely.

We meet David for dinner on campus. This is one of those weird moments of culture shock where the foods you think you recognize taste nothing like what you’re expecting. This was really rough the first couple of weeks where all I wanted at the end of a long day was to know what I was going to be eating. However, now that I’m recognizing different dishes it’s getting a lot easier. I’ve got some definite favourites, like the Sichuan pork bowls, black fungus, or Grandmother’s Pork (it’s a pork belly & egg dish in a sweetish bbq like sauce) and some definite no-thank-yous (here’s looking at you, fish or most chicken stews – I just can’t cope with all the bones). Walter’s found a chef who makes Chinese crepes to order, so that’s his dinner regular, and Annie usually orders a giant bowl of dumplings. There are hundreds of food options on campus so it’s just been a process of finding what best suits our tastes and going with that. As everyone always says, the food in China is *not* the Chinese food you’re used to, and this definitely rings true even for those who, like me, tried to branch out to more authentic places before moving over here. But, as everyone who’s been to Shanghai also says, the food scene here is awesome.

After dinner we take a leisurely walk home and wind down, just like we did in Canada, only I get more down time here because I can actually do stuff other than spend most of my waking hours in some form of work. That’s a major win.

A cafe on campus, where we often go for a little sweet & hot drink after dinner. 
So yes, Shanghai life is a definite win and I’m so grateful that we were able to take this opportunity.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

First Impressions

Posted now that I have internet
We’ve been in China for 3.5 days as I write this. It’s been intense and I’ve had moments where I wonder if we’re crazy, but overall the excitement of being in a new country is infectious.

Flying here was so easy that it must have been a miracle. The kids were so good on the plane that my scolding of them was only for the regular things, not for anything major. They played, slept, watched shows, and generally enjoyed the experience of flying. As for me, I found that the 11.5 hours passed much more quickly than I thought it would.

Getting off the airplane was intense. The gate area had a lingering smell of food, it was stuffy, and it was just familiar enough to other airports to be really disconcerting in its differences. But after we’d all had some water and a chance to refresh it was no big deal to make our way through immigration and customs and baggage claim and to the taxi. And then it was off for the real adventure!

We live in Minhang, just across the street from Jiao Tong University. I really like what I’ve seen of the area. In many ways it’s like any other large urban area – traffic, shops, busy intersections, and complicated traffic patterns. Sometimes it reminds me of Berlin and sometimes it reminds me of Richmond. The river areas remind me of Cambridge, lined as they are with willows and the reinforced banks that still seem foreign to me as a Canadian. There is a lot of green space where we are, so much well-designed green space. There are pockets of trees and little gardens everywhere and they all have a cultivated, cared-for beauty. It is not nearly as crowded as I’d feared. Yes, there are people everywhere, but it’s never been anything like London or even Cambridge during the busy times. This might be because we don’t live in city centre, so I’ll have to report back. Also, the streets are well cared for and don’t seem any dirtier than other cities. Whenever we go out in the morning there are crews of street cleaners vigorously sweeping away leaves with their brush-brooms.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Just a matter of days...

Our visa applications have finally been approved for submission! Hurray! I didn’t realise just how stressed I was until I got the phone call saying that all the applications had been approved. We’re going to Vancouver tomorrow to pick up our visas. I must say that I’ve been impressed with the number of things that Consulate has in place to help with application hiccups. For one thing, although your application may get sent back a few times for additional information there is no fee to pay for these rejections and I never was left with the impression that things wouldn’t work out. Other countries want the fee upfront, before you learn if you’re accepted or denied. As well, the office is set up with a photocopier and printer, so that if the documents you need are readily available you can actually procure them without leaving the Consulate. This came in quite useful to us on Monday past. 

Now comes the part that, in years past, was the most stressful – the packing of the suitcases. This time I am not freaking out, or at least not freaking out most of the time. I think it helps that the luggage allowance for Asia isn’t as horribly restricted as for the rest of the world. 2 suitcases per person feels like a luxury now that most international destinations only allow 1. And when two of those people are basically the size of one large suitcase, there is perhaps a little more space available for packing than one those suitcases all belong to one adult! It also helps, of course, that I’ve done this move & setup thing so many times in the past. It’s not that I don’t think there will be stressful times, it’s just that I’ve learned not to bother anticipating that stress this time around.

This morning I woke up to the sound of the rain running through the pine trees outside my window. The sky is a luminous white which suggests that the rain will stay. The children & I have been snatching outdoor time here & there, whenever we can, and it’s not often because the rain will not stop. It is easier to embrace the dreary weather because I know there are not many days left of waking up in a 100 year old logging-shanty-turned-cottage in the middle of a coastal rainforest. Soon I’ll be waking up to…I don’t know what. I know that our place has a lot of opportunities for cleaning & tlc, but that’s ok. For the first time in three years I’m looking forward to having the time & energy to creatively turn our home into something cozy.

See? Cozy
When it's not raining
And sometimes even when it is

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Waiting to Move

I mentioned that the kids & I were waiting for some paperwork to come through before we could join David in China. As difficult as it is to be without him, there have been a few benefits to this (for us, probably not for him!):

  1. Settling in to life in a new country is always challenging, and I don’t just mean the learning to do things in a new place. Expat life has this really glamorous image thanks to those Expats who work for big multinational corporations that give them incentive packages to live overseas. This is certainly not the reality for many of us, so travel to a new country usually involves trying to squeeze all one’s worldly goods into 1 or 2 suitcases and then doing a fair bit of roughing it until one has a chance to set up home. I really hate that David is going through this set-up experience without us, but I’m glad for the sake of the children that things will be a little more settled when we do arrive. 
  2. Having time to ease into back into stay-at-home-mum life is amazing. I keep having to remind myself that it’s OK to take as much time as I want to play games with the children – I’m used to having to squeeze all of our fun into a few hours balanced with housework. I know a big part of this is due to being at my parents, since my mum is taking care of most of the meals and if I have any urgent business to attend to I can easily shut the door and get it done, but it’s certainly helping me feel more relaxed and that’s leading to an easier transition with the kids. I’m not sure how things will change once we’re settled but I think there will be a nice change of pace with David coming home from his office every day to give me some downtime. Walter is also supposed to start school in September so I’m trying to enjoy every last moment with my big boy preschooler right now. 
  3. Being able to have all this quality time with my parents is great. It’s the first time since the kids were born that my visits will them haven’t had an undercurrent of change & stress. I mean, maybe this sounds crazy since I’m in the middle of moving overseas, and certainly I have my moments of feeling incredibly stressed, but there’s also lots of time to just kick back and enjoy life. The kids are running around the house & playing with my childhood toys, mum & I spend our days doing spring cleaning and planning yummy things to make, we go for walks in town, there’s lots of opportunity to visit my Gramma, and mostly we’re just enjoying each other’s company on this extended quasi holiday.
sleepy Annie is happy she can indulge in green apples & peanut-butter 

building before breakfast