Sunday, December 23

Second Thoughts, Part 2

The school I visited, which I’ll call Tai Gui International School, is right across from La-La Land.  La-La Land (which isn’t quite named exactly that), is what its website calls an “integrated complex,” meaning that, if you’re the type who requires a Gap and a Starbucks and a luxury manicurist at your doorstep to survive the rigors of living in Shanghai, and don’t mind living in a mall--surrounded by other like-minded mall-dwellers and their well-heeled offspring--to achieve that goal, then your needs are all integrated in a single fountain-spangled, retail-scented campus. 

There are hundreds (probably thousands) of people, Chinese and ex-pat, who have opted to make La-La land their home.  I have been to La-La Land many times (for birthday parties--they have a party-spot with a set of vertical-drop slides that are thrilling to the point of terrifying, and could not possibly be legal in the U.S.--for ritzy mom-lunches, and, yes, for pedicures). We know people who moved to La-La Land because it was so close to TGIS (The school and the complex itself would be the only reason to move there--as far as I can tell, there is nothing else in walking distance, and you see no one on the sidewalks.  The whole neighborhood looks like a piece of Los Angeles plunked down in China.), and another couple who confessed that, despite having lived there for a year, they’d never used the kitchen in their apartment, preferring to eat at the complex’s brew-pub, or the multi-station Asian-fusion restaurant, where you swipe a magnetic card to order your meals.

It’s not the school’s fault that it’s so close to the LLL-IC, but, unfairly, it suffers in my estimation from the proximity. When I got there, though, it didn’t look too different from the girls’ school--from the outside, at least.  Tall walls, gate with guardhouse, slightly desolate feel.  There is a play structure, but it looks designed for littler kids, and somehow made me more homesick for the girls’ Berkeley school’s jungle-gym than their current school’s complete lack of play structure has. 

I met my friends, and we went in to the chilly lobby area (they apparently heat only the classrooms, not the halls and common areas--a policy TGIS shares with the girls’ current school and one that, no matter how ecologically and fiscally sound it is, I find hard to get accustomed to), where we perched on benches and spoke with a carefully made up Brazilian Chinese American, who presented us each with a string-handled matte paper bag full of glossy brochures, a package whose duplicates I have received at every conference, focus-group, and corporate shin-dig I’ve ever attended.

Ms BCA used her iPad to show us the children’s schedule, which includes weekly library time (!), art, the usual math/science/English/Chinese, and something called ICT, which stands for Information and Communication Technology and takes place, I later learned, in a computer lab rivaling any I saw in my years at a certain Silicon-Valley based university:  20-inch flat-screen monitors in front of each child’s tiny chair, walls hung with perfectly formatted charts of weather trends (done by the children, complete with clip-art of smiling suns in glasses and sad-looking gray clouds).  On the day we were there, a second-grade class of kids were sitting on a carpet in the front of the room, receiving instructions from a kindly-looking Indian woman on how to use a graphic-design program to make holiday cards. 

Before our visit to the computer lab, though, the four of us chatted a bit about the curriculum and educational philosophy at TGIS.  Ms BCA was heavy on enthusiasm and light on specifics, but I did glean from her that: Every class has a Chinese teacher in the room, but no class except Chinese itself is taught 100% in Chinese.  Per Ms BCA, the children simply know that when they are addressing a Chinese teacher, they are to speak in Chinese, and when they speak to a non-Chinese teacher, they are to speak in English. 

Also, there is something called “Golden Time” every Wednesday, a period in which the children are allowed to do whatever they want for 45 minutes or so (a lovely idea that, I happen to know from my younger patients, has a darker flip-side: Golden Time can also be taken away as a punishment, something that wasn’t mentioned by Ms BCA).  When she came to the class called Pastoral Care Assembly, Ms BCA took great pains to assure me that it wasn’t really anything related to Christianity, really. More Moral, she said, than Christian.   “And Morals are important!” 

Dismissal is at 3:15 every day, and there were vague mentions of “a lot” of after school activities, but none were specifically mentioned, highlighted, or acknowledged.

What was specifically highlighted was the mandatory violin training, which takes place twice weekly through third grade, and the cafeteria. For reasons that, when I inspect them, don’t seem particularly rational, I don’t love the thought of the girls and their classmates stuck at their desks for lunch, as they are now--it just seems so dreary.  Never mind the fact that, as a child, I would have KILLED for a chance to just stay at my desk for lunch, rather than brave the malodorous mayhem that is a children’s school cafeteria. 

I have loved the absence of a ban on peanut butter.   Although it feels like there’s not a school left in the U.S. to which you can send anything resembling, born of, having had contact with, or otherwise related to a nut,* the memo doesn’t seem to have made it to the Chinese public schools yet, a fact I’ve been taking full advantage of--the girls have eaten peanut butter with every lunch since they decided to forego the school’s offerings. 

TGIS, however, is very progressive in that regard, and Ms. BCA assured me, as we entered the cafeteria, that theirs is a nut-free campus, which threw me into a momentary panic.**  But then, I saw their salad bar, full of crisp-looking pristine lettuce, and carrot slices, celery sticks, hard-boiled eggs, and cubes of cheese.  And then the buffet, where the kids could choose tiny slices of pizza, noodles, fried rice, chicken, broccoli.  This was as good as the girls’ school in Berkeley--better, even, because unlike the girls’ school in Berkeley, this cafeteria has enormous windows and big French doors opening to the outdoors, no noticeable odor, and comes with--according to Ms BCA--ayis who will heat up food sent from home (after retrieving it from the school refrigerators, of course). 

I was starting to feel an itching in my sign-me-up finger.  Then we went into an art class.  The kids, a 60/40 mix of Asian-looking and Other-looking, were all standing around some structures they’d been working on.  Some of you may remember my dismay during our first weeks in China, when I discovered that the “houses” we helped the girls build out of old oatmeal canisters and yoghurt cups for kindergarten were what the other parents and teachers called “creative,” while their eyes--roving wildly as if seeking to ensure a safe exit should our obvious mental illness manifest itself--telegraphed “outlandish.” 

These kids’ structures would have thrown those folks into conniptions--sprouting antennae, bulbous towers, oddly-shaped windows, and painted in colors from ballet-pink to deepest eggplant, they looked like the original creations of children’s minds. The teacher looked tiredly supportive, and her blonde hair was coming undone the way an art teacher’s should.  I was clearly in an actual Art Class. If we enrolled the kids at TGIS, they wouldn’t be subjected to the cookie-cutter ideals that have made me crazy at their current school.

There was no Chinese teacher in that class, though (it was taught by a friendly looking blonde), and no Chinese teacher in the ICT room, either.  We looked in on a science class, taught by another white woman, where a bored-looking Chinese woman, presumably the other teacher, was doing something at a computer while all the kids clustered around the white woman.  Then we looked in on another class, with another bored-looking Chinese woman answering a child’s question in the corner, while yet another white teacher held forth at the front of the room.

By the time we got to the math classroom, the kids had all left to go meet up at the salad bar, and I was left to peruse the walls of what turned out to be a third-grade math class.***  It was while the math teacher (Haitian? Cuban? African? Mexican? Brownish skin and accented English) was ignoring my claims that my kids could speak, read, and write Chinese at a native level (in favor of explaining to me, twice, that there would be remedial Chinese classes available for them), and I was, in turn, ignoring his assertions that the math might be difficult for our girls (while absorbing the hand-writing on the wall, in the form of corrected test papers, which demonstrated that the math the girls would be doing in his class next year, if we chose TGIS, would be mainly a repeat of what they will have already done this year), that I began to feel the inklings of a decision coming on. 

Then, as I left, Ms BCA--right after explaining to me that no actual Chinese citizen can go to TGIS, since entry into the school requires a foreign passport--insisted that I wait while she ran to “grab a small gift for the girls.”  This gift turned out to be the most genius bit of marketing I’ve ever seen: two small, plush, soft, and irresistible Cutesie-Poos, each wearing a TGIS cap and TGIS shirt. 

What is the opposite of Kryptonite?   If you’re a seven-year-old girl, it’s Stuffed Cutesie-Poos, and sending these toys on the school’s behalf seemed both extremely unfair and wildly irrelevant, like an accountant giving you a tiny dose of really high-quality heroin to advertise his actuarial practice.  I put took them home and put them in an inconspicuous place, planning to dispose of them later.

My children, however, were born equipped with one super-power: they cannot fly, turn into fireballs, or cook soufflé’s with their laser-gaze, but they can sniff out any new stuffed Cutesie-Poos in a 100-yard radius.  After I picked them up from school, we just were through our front door, but the girls did not yet have their shoes off when I turned around to find them delightedly snuggling the SCP’s, crooning and exclaiming. Then the Princess noticed: “Mommy, these Cutesie-Poos go to the same school Angel does!” 

Angel, called that here because she is pretty much the perfect specimen of ex-pat childhood--friendly, confident, open but not cloying, and tri-lingual--made me waver for a moment; as an advertisement for the school, she is a mom’s Cutesie-Poo. 

The girls were too interested in the Cutesie-Poos to ask me much about why I had two of them from Angel’s school, and I changed the subject to snack time.  But a few days later, I was in a taxi with the girls, and the Princess, who always grasps a situation’s essence sooner or later, asked me, out of the blue, “Mommy, why did you have those TGIS Cutesie-Poos?”

I was surprised into telling the truth, and even more surprised by the chorus of dismay from the girls, led by the Princess herself:


“We don’t want to leave Lotus Grove!”

“We’d have to leave our friends!”

“And our teachers!”

“Mommy, PLEAAAAAAAASE don’t make us change schools!”

Now, to be fair, I didn’t tell them about the salad bar, or the art class, or the English-speaking teachers.  But it’s clear to me that the girls love their current school.  And then there’s the incredible education they’re getting (in Chinese, obviously, but also in math--where they’re learning not just division but also the words for “divisor,” “dividend,” and “quotient” in Chinese--and science, a lot of which has been incorporated into their Chinese class recently, with texts about dinosaurs and blood platelets leading, accidentally or not, to the kind of curricular integration that is all the rage now in the enlightened private school circles).  There’s my extreme discomfort with the idea of living in China but sending my kids to a school where actual Chinese teachers appear to be side-lined and actual Chinese kids aren’t even allowed.  Last on the list, but by no means negligible, is the fact that simply to apply to TGIS costs about the same as a semester’s worth of the girls’ current tuition.  Should we decide to send the girls there, the tuition would be seventeen times what we pay now, and that’s not including the salad bar.  Sure, we could afford it, but that kind of difference forces you to think about what, exactly, you’re paying for. 

Lately--after the Princess made “a home for a platelet!” out of clay given to her by a classmate; and the Rooster wrote a 300-word essay in Chinese on how to make a periscope out of cardboard and mirrors, a skill she learned in one of the girls’ after-school activities; and as the girls have shown a willingness to volunteer to go first and demonstrate in their hip-hop and taekwondo classes that I simply cannot imagine being imparted to them by a Western-style school--I have been feeling like whatever it is that you get for the TGIS tuition, it’s not more, or even better, education.

So I was feeling extremely comfortable with my choice to have the girls continue at Lotus Grove for the rest of this year and next year, and to re-evaluate again for their fourth-grade year, after a wider survey of international schools.  In fact, I had already mentally drafted an email to Ms BCA informing her of our decision, but had yet to send it, when I headed out for a coffee-date with a friend from work.  The girls were just getting started with their Chinese lesson and I was putting on my coat, when I heard the Rooster say something in Chinese to me and her Chinese tutor.  She seemed delighted about whatever it was, so I gave her a distracted but happy “Really?!” in Chinese and went on out the door, just catching the teacher’s dismayed look as I left. 

I was late, though, and figured it couldn’t be that big a deal, which is why I was already in the elevator with the first-floor button pushed when the Princess came out to translate for me: “Mommy!” she said, with the glee of a child who knows what she has to say will make an impact.  “Today in school Li Laoshi decided that she was going to hit the kids who were bad! On the hands!”



“Did she actually hit anyone?”

“Yes, I just TOLD you!”

“Did she hit you or the Rooster?”

“No, of course not, we weren’t bad!”

At this point, the elevator doors were closing.  “We’ll talk more about this later,” I called, through the narrowing crack.

As the doors closed and the elevator started to move, I heard the Princess ask, voice fading as the elevator started to move, “Why do we need to talk about it later?  She didn’t hit us….”

And so I was left where I will now leave you, descending, inexorably, back into doubt and confusion.

*At least, not in the types of places where you can get the daily fresh baguettes our family requires for subsistence.

**As an ER doctor, and the friend of several nut-allergic families, I feel it my duty to state that A) I have nothing against nut-free policies and B) to the extent that it is safer to not have nuts in school, such policies are clearly necessary to protect children from lazy moms like myself, who will otherwise not take it on themselves to abstain from nut-sending. 

***They have a slightly different grade numbering system at TGIS, but I’m sticking with the American system to avoid my own confusion.

Tuesday, December 11

Second thoughts, Part 1

The other day, Thanksgiving Day, to be exact, I found myself trying to convince some friends that they should consider sending their son to a local school for first grade.

“Absolutely not!” said the Dad, a Jewish American from an area in the U.S. known for…rich Jewish Americans. 

I like this guy.  He is friendly, smart, and generous.  Since he has married a Chinese woman, lives in China, and is one of the few expats I’ve met who has taken the trouble to learn to speak Chinese really well, I was surprised at his vehemence.  He and his family live in the same compound we do, so their son attending the girls’ school would be as convenient for them as it is for us, geographically.  And linguistically and culturally--well, let’s just say that to finish writing this sentence I had to tear myself out of a glorious daydream wherein me, MTH, my mom, and the girls were all fluent in Chinese, and two of us had actually gone to school in this country.

There are a number of kids in the girls’ class who have Chinese moms and American or European fathers.  This combination seems to work, since it is--generally speaking, I guess--the moms who help with the homework.  As far as I know, I am one of only four families with non-Chinese-speaking moms at the school: in addition to me, there’s Ms. Eastern European (who says she and her family are mainly here because the public education available to her kids in Shanghai is better than that in her home-country), and the two Ms. Headscarves, one Caribbean-ish*, one South Asia-ish.  I exchange nods with them all, and the occasional few sentences with Ms Eastern Euro, who has been around long enough to allow for accumulation of the thousand nods I seem to require before I can work up the courage to actually speak to someone. 

These days, adding to my general fear of idle school-gate chit-chat (already augmented by the fact that, when I do engage, my interlocutors are, necessarily, the type of people who don’t bring something to read while waiting, a breed I will never understand, language-barrier or no), is the dread of learning information I’d be better off without. During my last exchange with Ms EE, she imparted that, although she has been thrilled with the experience her two older kids have had at our school, she’s run into problems with her youngest’s first-grade teacher.  Per Ms EE, this teacher has divided the class into two groups, one comprising those whose parents have paid an “extra fee” levied by the teacher herself, who are lavished with attention and given padded test scores; the other comprising those whose parents haven’t, and who therefore aren’t.

I have no way of verifying Ms EE’s story, or none that my language skills would render appropriately discreet (“I HEAR TEACHER ASKS YOUR MONEY, IF YOU DON’T MONEY, SHE TO YOUR CHILD NOT GOOD!”), but her tale (which, true or not, adds to the uncomfortable haze that my thoughts about the school float in); the increasing burden of homework this year (the time we spend is about the same, since we no longer need to check the dictionary every five seconds, but the stress is greater and the fortifying novelty is waning); and the fact that the only non-Chinese-speaking moms I’ve met who send their kids to local school do so for financial reasons; were all in the background when Thanksgiving Dad made it so clear that he would never, ever consider making the choice we have made. 

The whole scene at that dinner--TD’s sureness in the face of my own confusion; the simultaneous presence at our table of a friend I had hitherto seen just once since we were performers in the New York Renaissance Faire (I dressed as a beekeeper, and we spent our time shirking our improv duties to sneak into the woods for anachronistic cigarettes, a period I am sad to say was the pinnacle of my acting career); all of us gathered around a turkey I’d bought in China at a place called Bubba’s Texas Barbecue, served in metal bowls won at a Shanghai furniture mall’s lucky draw and laid on a table made of wood reclaimed from houses razed to make way for the new, neon-gasma-tastic Shanghai--was so surreal that it forced me to ask the question that has been lurking around the edges of my consciousness since the girls started second grade: Am I crazy?

When I was young(er) and had the kind of college professors who smoked their own cigarettes in class, theirs accumulating trembling columns of ash while they berated us about our inhibited pelvises and hollered their assertions that  “general enthusiasm is the CHEAPEST COMMODITY ON THE STAGE!” I was also taught that, while madness itself is not interesting theater, a character’s descent into madness is, if done right, captivating--witness Ophelia, Woyzeck, Britney.  I think we can all agree that when I first decided to send the girls to a local school, I was ignorant, but not crazy.  But then, as I find myself trying to explain to the girls why their scores in the Chinese English class are so low (“Well, you seem to have gotten marked off here for having incorrectly memorized whether this picture of a sun low in the sky refers to ‘morning’ or ‘evening.’”), or screaming, literally screaming, at my children to “color faster, GODDAMMIT!” so that they can move on to the next exercise and hopefully get to bed before 10pm, I start to feel the cuckoos springing out of my ears while my eyeballs twirl.  To the extent that people have found this account of the girls’ schooling interesting, is it possible that that interest is really just some form of “How low can she go?” 

And if such a concern seems overly dramatic, given your likely conviction that what I’ve described sounds more funny and strange than horrifying--how do you know that I haven’t been keeping the really bad stuff to my self out of shame?  And even if you think that unlikely (since who with any real sense of shame would acknowledge their Renaissance Faire past), how do I know that the girls are telling me everything?  Lately the Rooster has been saying to me “Mommy, there are some things that I sooooooo know what they mean in Chinese, but I don’t know how to say them in English!”  What could these things be?  When she starts to sob because she thinks she’s forgotten her math book (an easily rectifiable problem, since we have twins and a copier), am I supposed to believe that this a normal level of despair for a forgetful seven-year old?  Or is something being said at school that she can’t translate because it makes connections--an inverse relationship between forgetfulness and your worth as a person, for instance--that she’s never heard in English?  Dwell too much on these questions and you’ll start beating your heart and singing about cockle hats.

When we first came here, I thought it was only for a year, and figured not much damage could be done.  But now (as Thanksgiving Dad was assuring me that his own son--who, in my experience, is a lovely, verbal, friendly, but not exactly retiring child--was “too sensitive” for a local school, and I was trying simultaneously to not feel insulted by the implication that mine aren’t and to quash a memory of the girls’ report that their after-school dance teacher had told them they were all brainless) I had to wonder when  I should end this--even the choice of words is fraught with implications.  Grind? Experiment? Adventure? Catastrophe? 

I am also acutely aware that, should it turn out that the girls remember their days in the Chinese elementary school with horror, they might raise some uncomfortable questions about my motives when they discover that I used their experience here as writing material.  My only comfort is that, since they know me well, they will probably find my true drivers--a love of convenience bordering on laziness and a lack of foresight bordering on idiocy--imminently believable. 

All of which is a long lead-up to what happened right after TD finished his list of reasons why public school in Shanghai is a no-go for them (including his disinclination to expose his son to the enforced political education he assumes is part-and-parcel of the experience, an assumption I can’t really refute since the girls still haven’t given me a great account of what goes on in their “society” class), which is that his wife revealed that she’d made an appointment to go see one of the international schools in Shanghai, a school as well-known for its emphasis on Chinese language as it is for its astronomical tuition.  She, clearly sensing my wavering, kindly invited me to go along.   To agree, and thank her for the opportunity, seemed the only sane thing to do. Stay tuned.

*Maybe.  I frankly have no idea and just made that up completely.  Also, MTH tells me he’s never seen her wearing a headscarf.  But I swear she does.  Or did.  At least once. 

Thursday, November 8

Rock me Like a Hurricane

Due to Hurricane Sandy, the other family our ayi works for had to return to the United States for an indeterminate amount of time, in order to retrieve water-logged (and, apparently, never-used) wedding gifts from the flooded basement of the New Jersey house they haven’t lived in for more than a decade.  To the Princess’ delight, they left their dog, Mokka--and a mountain of mini-bones and doggie-sausages, with instructions on their liberal use as rewards for sitting, staying, and timely off-leash returns--with us.

We haven’t had as much time as I’d like to spend with the dog, though, what with taekwondo, hamster-hunting (yes, the fourth hamster we’ve purchased in the last six months went--temporarily, I am happy to report--missing last week), and homework.  The girls are getting much more efficient, but the volume of work has increased and their own standards are simultaneously escalating, which means we haven’t seen much gain in leisure time.   Their benchmark may be rising because the girls are getting better and better academically, feeling more and more pride in their work.  Perhaps they are simply understanding the instructions and what is required of them more fully.  Or, it may be because there are certain disciplinary and community realities currently in play that the language barrier previously spared them.  

For instance:  Apparently, one of the children--let’s call him the Karate Kid--began kicking one of the other kids’ cubbies one day.  As will happen in the loose round-up of barbarians we call a “second-grade-class,” another kid observed the new activity and, noting its obvious improvement over any sanctioned diversion, joined in.  Together, they kicked so hard and so long that the cubby broke. 

The victim of this crime noticed it, of course, but he opted not to tattle.  According to the girls, it took several days before the teacher discovered the destruction.  But discover it she did, and, when she had, she naturally demanded to know who the destroyers were.  One way or another, they were identified, at which point Wang laoshi commanded them--not to switch cubbies with the owner of the now-broken cubby, or to repair the cubby, or work to pay off the value of the cubby, but…to kick their own cubbies until they were broken, too.

Now the girls, not being the cubby-kicking types, are unlikely to suffer (if suffering is what follows when the punishment for a crime is to repeat the same crime with permission) from this brand of justice. They, instead, are being kept in line by a mélange of social pressures, class envy, favor-bestowing, and public shaming that would make Louis the Fourteenth proud.  This year has seen the introduction of the xiao dui zhang, the zhong dui zhang, and, I presume, the gao (or maybe da) dui zhang, although that last one is so exalted I’ve never heard of it being bestowed.  

What is a dui zhang, you ask?  Well, like a miniature American flag or a paper-back bible, it is both nothing and everything.  I heard the girls talking about the subject--who in the class had received xiao dui zhang, who the zhong dui zhang, what the requirements were for such an honor--long before I realized that they were talking about the badges I’d seen pinned to some of their schoolmates’ shoulders.  These badges are white and bear one, two, or three bars on them.  Depending, I presume, on whether the kids are still wearing the green scarf or have moved up to the red scarf, the bars are either green or red.  I have recently learned that one and a half RMB (about twenty-four cents) will buy you one at the local office-supply store. 

But of course, their value is not in the plastic they are made of, but in the right to wear them, granted by the teachers for…and that is where things become hazy for me.   The badges and bars themselves are directly related to the Young Pioneers, the Communist party youth branch.   But because there is no real difference seen between being a good party member and a good student (appropriate enough, at this age, I suppose), they are generally given out for some combination of good behavior, good academic performance and, apparently, popularity.  I do not know, although MTH and I have our suspicions, whether the size (or existence) of the mid-year parent-to-teacher hongbao have anything to do with their conferral.

I do know, as the girls’ reports to us became more and more angst-ridden, that many of their friends had the honor bestowed upon them before they themselves did.   They did seem to feel (although MTH and I were more dubious) that they WOULD, for sure, be given the opportunity to wear the xiao dui zhang, at some point, as the honor would rotate amongst the children, and, per the girls, “everyone will get a chance.”  They told me that each row in the classroom had a badge and that, once granted to a member of the row, the honor of wearing it lasted a single week, at which point it was passed on to the next person.

Based on what I’ve seen thus far, a turn-and-turnabout rotation seemed unlikely in the extreme, but I bided my time.  And, indeed, they turned out to be right, or sort of.  The Rooster came home one day beaming, telling us that the Little Martinet, who sits in her row and had already won the chance to wear the xiao dui zhang, had chosen the Rooster as the badge’s next wearer.  Or, perhaps she didn’t so much choose her as break a tie between her and another member of the row, both of whom qualified this week by, according to the Rooster, “getting the EXACT SAME number of stamps in our xiao benzi!”  The stamps’ contribution to xiao dui zhang eligibility making me understand why having a stamp slashed out after the glo-stick fiasco was so meaningful. 

And the Princess?  Apparently her turn in her row had also come up, and she had ALSO, in an extraordinary coincidence, exactly tied another member of the row for number of stamps.  Why she changed her methodology I don’t know, but for the Princess’ row, Wang laoshi decided to call a vote.  And so the three remaining kids in the row voted on whether the Princess or the other child, who I’ll call The Obvious Choice in a Public Vote if Your Goal is Success in the Chinese Classroom, ought to get to wear the badge.  I report with pride that the Princess received 33.3 percent of the vote.   The loss notwithstanding, she had been assured that the next week her turn would come, as she was the last one left in the row, and she seemed, if mildly hurt, relatively philosophical about the vote and its outcome.

As I said, the girls initially told me that they would be allowed to wear the xiao dui zhang for a week, after which it would be passed on.  But at the end of the Rooster’s week, the word came from on high, passed on by the Rooster herself, that we were to go buy a xiao dui zhang badge.  This we did, whereby proving, after only a brief bout of panic, that the closet-sized store in the secret lane near our house really does have, as the Little Gentleman’s mom assured me in the pre-first-grade scramble, everything. 

We sent the badge to school with the Rooster, and, now, this week, both she and the Princess have gone to school with the little badges safety-pinned to their sleeves.  Whether this second badge-wearing week is representative of an oversight on the part of the teachers (I can only imagine the punishment for impersonating a bona fide xiao dui zhanger), or the girls have misunderstood, I can only guess.  I have heard that, at least in some schools, both the scarves and the badges are batched, with the “best” kids getting them first.  So perhaps what the girls thought was a rotation was really a step-wise promotion.  Regarding what is to happen with the Princess next week, I await my instructions.

And then there are the stamps.  The Rooster told me this week that if she got x-number of stamps in her xiao benzi, then she could get a truck sticker, and if she got three truck stickers then…to be honest, I can’t remember what the carrot is.  Or maybe I never knew; it is possible that it was lost in the wails that erupted when she discovered that she had not brought home her er hao ben, in which she was supposed to write one of her exercises, an exercise she assured me--probably accurately--would not be deemed stamp-worthy if done on a plain piece of paper rather than in the little number 2 booklet.

It was as I was trying to reassure her that the stamp system, while possibly useful as a tool, was not in and of itself important to her education (“Then why does Wang laoshi think it’s so so so sooooo important?”) that the Princess looked up from the couch, where she was cheerfully cramming her English homework onto the two inches of white space left on the Xeroxed sheet detailing the assignment, and said “You know what?  I think they are using those stamps to train us the same way we use treats to train Mokka.” 

That delivery of that comment, set against the thirty-minute crying jag the Rooster went on last night when she realized she’d failed to fully show her work on two of the sixty problems on yesterday’s math mid-term, are as good an encapsulation as any of how the year is going so far.   

Thursday, November 1

Easy Come, Easy Glo

A few days ago, when I woke up from the fog built of travel, jet-lag, 24-hour shifts and one extremely vomit-laden and wail-ridden L.A. lay-over (during which I discovered--after riding all over town in the company of a jovially misogynist Eritrean taxi driver--that when I tell my patients that it should be easy to go out and fill the midnight prescription I just wrote them, they are one hundred percent correct in their assumption, which I have gleaned from the daggers flying silently out of their eyes in my general direction, that I am a lying con-artist of the very worst pants-flaming stripe), it was to the Princess telling me a story.

It was a true story, and requires only this background: That day they had gone on a field trip.  There are two, and exactly two, field trips each year.  One in Fall and one in Spring.  They are called Fall Trip and Spring Trip, and are so much a part of Shanghai school life that on that same day, when I told my driver (who was born in Shanghai but banished to the countryside for twenty years during the mess surrounding the Cultural Revolution, and since then has been busy building a car-service empire) that “TODAY KIDS LEAVE SCHOOL AND GO SOMEWHERE TOGETHER.  VERY FUN!” He responded immediately with “啊!秋游!” the forgotten words for fall trip. 

As I had to admit to the taxi-driver, I didn’t actually know where the kids were going, but, judging from last year’s experience, I figured it would have an amusement level approaching the debauched.  Last Spring, as you may recall, they went to something called the Shanghai Animation and Comic Museum, where the Princess spent a fair amount of time and money attempting to coax a prize out of one of those carnie claw-grab games.  Unsure at the time whose money it was, since I had not provided any, I let it ride, but I worried that maybe they were the only kids who didn’t bring their own, and had been floated by another kid or, worse, by the teachers.  So, just in case it was the done thing, I tucked twenty RMB, or about three dollars, into each girl’s bag before this trip.

All had gone well for the first part of the day.  The girls got on the luxury coach-liners the school procures for such trips (which will have forever spoiled them for the green-benched yellow cans they are doomed to if and when we return to the U.S.), and when they alit, the Princess recounted, they found themselves in an amusement park.  The group was just sitting down to enjoy a performance there, when along came a woman hawking glo-sticks. 

The Princess, having just had an extended pleading session with MTH wherein he resolutely declined the opportunity (provided daily by the holiday swag-stand they’ve set up in our compound’s clubhouse) to purchase just such a glo-stick, and with the money burning a hole in her Barbie mini-messenger bag, seized the moment and flagged the woman down.  She fished out her twenty kuai and bought one for herself.

At that point her best friend, the Little Martinet--who I can personally attest is no slouch at the pleading game--began a session of her own, whereat the Princess, lacking her father’s iron will but in full possession of her mother’s pecuniary heedlessness, immediately offered to procure one for her.  The Little Martinet, who, (the Rooster informs me with heartbreaking envy) routinely gets the highest score on their math tests, had no trouble figuring out which was the best value glo-stick for her, and requested that the Princess buy her the largest one. 

The Princess agreed to this plan, while simultaneously becoming jealous, since the one she was buying for the Little Martinet was larger than the one she, forced to weigh glo-stick size against the amount of her own personal outlay, had chosen to buy for herself. 

I am proud to report that rather than tell the Little Martinet that perhaps she should be satisfied with a smaller stick, it being free and all, the Princess elected to buy two of the larger ones, and pawned the smaller one off on The Rooster, who was initially thrilled at the unexpected windfall, since it would never in one million years have occurred to her to independently make such a purchase.

Then, apparently, several things happened simultaneously.  The Rooster noted the size differential between her stick and those acquired by the Princess and the Little Martinet, and the other kids all noticed the glo-sticks.  In rapid succession, the Rooster had given away the smaller glo-stick, pulled her money out of her little Adidas backpack and purchased a larger one, given that one away, and then she and the Princess spent all the rest of their money providing glo-sticks to what had, naturally, turned into a scrum of their classmates.  The Rooster had just realized, to her dismay, that she had neglected to retain a single glo-stick for herself, when this scrum attracted the attention of Wang laoshi, who, in the Princess’ retelling, swooped down upon them with great vengeance and furious anger, or at least with a very clear containment strategy, and confiscated all the glo-sticks. 

“Wang laoshi told us we should not have so much money,” the Princess told me, which, in retrospect, is quite clear.

The following school day, apparently, the teacher asked everyone in the class who had purchased a glo-stick to stand up.  All the guilty parties stood, including the poor Rooster, caught up in a scandal larger than herself.  The children then had to troop, one by one, up to the desk, where they had one of the cherished stamps in their xiao benzi, redeemable in aggregate for stickers, which are in turn periodically redeemable in aggregate for cartoon-spangled school supplies, slashed out. 

Whether it’s because I’m a foreigner or the belief in personal responsibility is so strong here, no one--not the teacher, not another kid, nor another parent--has contacted me regarding this incident.  The Princess told my mom that one of the girls in the class asked her, marveling at the whole episode, “Since when did you become a bank?”

The Princess’ telling was off-hand, and she seemed at peace with the whole event, sad only that her period of blissful glo-stick ownership had been so brief.  The Rooster, now, she lays low.  I have tried to probe, but have mainly gotten unanswerable questions in return: “Why does Wang laoshi think the stamps are SOOOO important?”  “Why didn’t she TELL us we weren’t allowed to do that?”  “Even though you tell me the stamps are not very important, I just can’t help feeling like they are.” 

Which last is not really a question, except that when it’s said with the patented Rooster lip-quiver and voice-quaver, the combination just begs you for a way to resolve this paradox.  She did give me one straight answer, when I tried to gently probe her reasons for giving away all her money, as part of the groundwork for a careful discussion I planned but never did have about the extraordinarily fine--and possibly mythical--line between generosity and stupidity.

“Why,” I asked the Rooster, “did you keep on buying glo-sticks for the other kids even when you didn’t have one for yourself?” 

“Oh,” she said, “I don’t know.  They just seemed so EAGER for them.”

Tuesday, September 25

What keeps me up at night

Reading David Foster Wallace’s biography recently,  I was--surprised? disappointed?--to learn that his parents apparently didn’t notice anything amiss in his psyche when he was younger, even though there were multiple days DFW had to stay home from school just because he was “too nervous” to go.  I mean, he was David Foster Wallace--how could you listen to one sentence he said and not be worried for his sanity? Even when he was essentially sent home from college with a sign on his forehead saying “needs help!” they didn’t do much but feed him and let him figure it out. 

Or so says his biographer.  One wonders if his parents might have a different memory or, if the account is accurate, what exactly they ought to have added, what more they could have done to help.  Maybe  DFW’s parents realized, long before high school, that he, like all of us, was on his own, that much as they might have liked to, they couldn’t add much beyond food, shelter, and a working knowledge of syntax.

Before you have kids, unless you’re world-famous, no one pays you much mind.  And then you have kids and it takes a while to get used to them: to their dependence on you, to their insatiable desire for your presence, to your celebrity status in their world.  Then, the second you start to get cozy in your new role, they rip that carpet right out from under you and take off, without you, for parts unknown.

It’s bad enough if you start out thinking you understand them.  The Princess, who I still feel like I pretty much get, is already headed where I can’t follow:  Even if everything she read was in English and I could stomach screening it (an impossibility: my last attempt at a spot-check found me wading through a tale narrated by a dog whose owner’s wife died shortly after having their baby, struck down by a brain cancer the dog had sniffed out early in its course, but couldn’t alert them to because, despite his having learned English by watching TV while his master was out zipping around the track in his career as a racecar driver, the poor pup was unable to train his floppy tongue and dog-lips to form the life-saving words), her world-view would still be shaped by the social pressures and distorted reality of the playground and the classroom, less accessible to me here--if that’s possible--than in the US.

And then there are the random strands of culture that snag on the matrix.  Today, the girls recounted for me a long story that Wang Laoshi told them about how the world was once an egg, and inside it was a god who decided to increase the distance between heaven and earth, and “all the blue things went up and turned into the sky, and all the gray things came down and turned into the ground, and his eyes became the moon and the sun, and his hair turned into all the stars.  And his blood became water.”

Unable to gracefully handle this sudden elegy for an unknown deity, I asked, “Then why isn’t water red?”

The Princess looked at me and said, without missing a beat, “Maybe his blood was clear!” 

Maybe.  And, with logic like that, it seems she’s unlikely to take this tale--which Google tells me is that of the god Pangu, aka Pan Ku, still worshipped in many Taoist temples--at face value.  Which it certainly wasn’t meant to be.  But I don’t know how it was meant, not in the way I would know what to make of the myths and legends (Athena springing from Zeus’ head, Washington and his cherry tree, benevolent white folks sharing a happy Thanksgiving meal with the Native Americans) she might hear at school in the U.S.  So the Princess is on her own, and I can’t help but wonder where it will go, how this story will fit with all the others and inform her world-view--when we go swimming in the Apple River, will she forever after, however briefly, imagine bathing in the blood of a man whose hair floats above us at night?  And if so, will she find joy in the image, or will it curdle around her?

But at least with the Princess I feel like she’s got her feet on the same ground I do, her path traceable on a map I can read.  The Rooster, on the other hand--she’s already riding that carpet through the air, soaring and plummeting and looping the loopy loop and who knows what else--she’s untraceable.  If I ever know what she will do, how she will react to a new situation, it’s not because I can follow her logic, but because I have observed her in prior situations.  I’m like the folks trying to make sense of the world by taking things cosmic and eternal--earth and stars--and rendering them in terms of the tangible world of hairy men and eggs.  I have no unified theory of the Rooster. 

For instance, one might have thought that the girl who, at three years old, adamantly refuted the existence of Santa Claus--Starting by noting the many physical and biological laws that would have to be suspended for a man in a reindeer-powered air-sleigh to travel through space and, necessarily, time, guzzling milk by the barrel and cookies by the ton; she would finish triumphantly by pointing out our house’s lack of a chimney--would not believe in the tooth fairy.  And you’d be right.  Sort of. 

When the Princess lost her first tooth, the Rooster was skeptical.  When money and a small stuffed toy appeared under the Princess’ pillow the next morning, you could see the gears whirring, the Rooster trying to make sense of this new bit of data, but not ready to take it at face value.  Her doubtful stance was bolstered by the tooth fairy’s spotty performance on subsequent lost teeth:  After several “late arrivals” of the tooth fairy (who managed to flit in and out sight unseen while the girls were in the bathroom after waking up and discovering the disappointment of a still-present tooth) and a crucial discovery by one of the girls of a suspiciously familiar tooth in a box on Mommy’s dresser, I actually ‘fessed up, afraid they were just going to think I was a liar--and a bad one, at that. 

This admission seemed to clear things up for the Rooster--“Oh,” she said, with relief, “You have wings!”

I kind of thought we were done after that debacle--teeth continued to be placed under pillows and money continued to, usually, appear.   The Princess acted--in her Princess-y way--like she’d forgotten the whole incident. She enjoys the fantasy, and she wasn’t going to let my spilling the beans get in the way of either the magic or the money.  My main concern was to keep the Rooster from using her grasp (skewed thought it might be) of reality to puncture the Princess’ bubble every time she lost a tooth, which she tends to do precipitously and bloodily, usually involving a collision with someone, a ruined shirt, and plenty of attention. 

The Rooster, though, is different.  One night, we were at dinner at a restaurant, and we noticed the Rooster was only using one hand to eat.  It turned out she had her tooth in the other hand.  It had fallen out during dinner, and she didn’t want to tell us.  It was the first tooth she’d lost, ever. 

Since then, she has never told us the moment when a tooth came out--but we were lucky, because usually the Princess would rat her out.  But then the Rooster pushed her resistance farther down the timeline: the last time the tooth fairy left money for her (actually remembering on time!), the Rooster left the money under the pillow, refusing to take it out or do anything with it, until finally the ayi confronted me with it and I snuck it into the Rooster’s money-box. 

And then came last Saturday, when, on the way to dance class from Tae Kwon Do, I marveled that the Rooster’s tooth--which I knew was loose--hadn’t come out in Tae Kwon Do, which was particularly vigorous that morning.  Something in the Rooster’s face made me stop in the middle of the sidewalk.  “Is it already out?” I asked her. 

Her face immediately crumpled, and she began to wail, inconsolably.  I thought she was upset that she’d lost the tooth, and asked if she wanted us to go back to search.  Nope, that wasn’t it.  I thought maybe she’d swallowed it, and was terrified it would make her sick.  Nope again.  Flushed it down the toilet?  Nope.  Given it to someone?  Nope.

It turned out that the Rooster had actually lost the tooth at school the day before, and not told anyone, not even the Princess.  She had carefully wrapped it in paper, put it in her backpack, brought it home, and, unbeknownst to any of us, put it under her pillow the night before.

“Is it still there?”  I asked her. 

“Probably,” she answered, with a scientist’s precision.  I never was able to get her to tell me if she’d done it to prove once and for all that there was no tooth fairy, or with the belief that I, since I am winged, am also omniscient. 

Later that week she lost another tooth (they are falling like rain in our house at the moment), which my mom again discovered when she noted the Rooster had been clutching something in her fist the whole evening.  The Rooster wept again when my mom called her out on it, and has absolutely refused to say what it is that upsets her so much about the whole process: Sorrow over the tooth fairy’s nonexistence?  Fear that she does exist and is creepily messing around children’s sleeping bodies?  Fear that her parents are going crazy, since we keep acting like the TF exists even when We All Know she doesn’t?  A natural fear for her bodily integrity when it turns out that some bits can just fall off?  The more we ask her about it, the more she weeps, and the more I am convinced that somewhere, somehow, I have done something terribly wrong, there’s been a terrible misunderstanding.  But I can’t fix it if I can’t find it, and I manifestly can’t find it.  She’s all alone with whatever the problem is, and all I can do is feed her--nothing too chewy--and let her figure it out. 

Wednesday, September 12

Ups and Downs

Monday was Teacher’s Day.  Why, oh why, is there not a school calendar?  As soon as I arrived at the school gate in the afternoon, vaguely wondering why there seemed to be so many flowers around, the girls accosted me, notified me of the holiday, and demanded to know why they had not been prepared with gifts for their teachers, as their friends had been.

One of my problems as a mom is that I lack the ability to formulate a plan and not tell the girls about it, which then means, that, as far as they are concerned, said plan is etched in stone.  The other problem is that I so readily come up with unrealistic plans.  And so, while trying to simultaneously shoulder the Rooster’s backpack, make sure the Princess wasn’t lacerating ankles with her rolling bag, field the girls’ clamor for a snack, and navigate the crush of grandma’s, parents, SUV’s and motor-scooters that surround the school gate at pick-up time, I muttered something about how maybe we could make brownies that night and the girls could belatedly hand them out in the morning.

It’s not even worth going through the number of things I had to forget to make that plan seem reasonable, if only for an instant.  Suffice it to say that, after cajoling and pleading my way through the three solid hours of homework that I’ve come to know as the Monday Special (during which time I barely allowed the girls to stop long enough to enjoy the fresh pork-buns the ayi had made at the Princess’ request), making cocoa substitute for baking chocolate and caffeine for sleep, the morning found me tying silver ribbon around little saran wrapped brownies, the dainty packages kind of losing their charm when squeezed amid elbowed-aside dirty dishes and set to a soundtrack of me shrieking ablution instructions (“don’t forget your Coochie and Booteeeeeeeeeeeyyyyyy!”). 

I was still naked in my room when I told the girls to push the elevator button, which is why they were

Friday, September 7

Knowing too much

When MTH took his first trip to China, a couple of years before we moved here, he got off the airplane, got in a taxi, and was driven just out into the peri-airport limbo, when his driver turned around, looked at his passenger, and shrugged.  Apparently, he had not understood when MTH gave his destination in English, and had thought it unwise to make this clear until he had driven far enough to eliminate the competition.  A phone call to the hotel solved the problem, of course, but the danger inherent in a complete lack of communication struck us both as something to be avoided in the future, so we set about learning Chinese.

What I didn’t realize was that knowing Chinese--or knowing only a little Chinese, which is where I find myself now--can be just as harrowing.  Take my communications with the ayi, for instance.  It’s important to know that I am flummoxed by the ayi in general.  Nothing in my prior life prepared me to have a servant; it is not something I ever once dreamed of.  This may surprise those of you who have witnessed the astonishing disarray of any of my living quarters, but it’s consistent--I think so little about cleaning that it never occurred to me to imagine having someone do it for me. 

But now I find myself with a woman who is in the house 25 hours a week, basically at my beck and call.  I don’t do any becking or calling--I don’t know how.  I just let her do her thing, and try to gloss over any imperfections the rest of the family identifies.  Sure, the Princess thinks she cooks too much fish, the Rooster would love it if she put stuff back in the same place all the time, and MTH has some spots--invisible to me--that he thinks could be cleaner.  But whenever I suggest that a complaining family member directly suggest an adjustment to the ayi, their volume goes way down, and they quickly find a reason they need to be in a different room.  I sympathize with them; I cannot bring myself to make even the smallest request--it seems so gauche or ungrateful, or just…too damn hard, without access to the verbal softeners and diffusers I need to be comfortable.

What’s funny is that the ayi doesn’t have the same qualms.  Well, maybe she does, but she gets over them in a way I’ve become very envious of.  It started when she realized that I was able to understand her well enough to grasp that the other family she worked for, in the mornings, was letting her go.  Would I be able to help find a new job?  That was easy enough; right around the same time a sort-of friend of mine advertised on an online community of ex-pat moms that I follow, and now she works for both families.

By then, though, the ayi, who had never used a computer before, had started to understand the power of the internet, and immediately began to--via me--harness it.  This, too, was no big deal.  Every once in a while she would come in to the office as I was working on the computer, and ask me “taitai, ni xianzai mang bu mang?”  Which means, depending on translation, “Ma’am, are you busy?” “Lady, are you currently occupied?” or “Boss lady, got a sec?”  It bothers me to not know which one it is, because it would allow me to judge her properly.  But in the end, the answer is that I am never so busy that I haven’t clicked on and viewed least one picture of a cute fuzzy animal on the internet, and I do think that helping another human being out is more important than playing online scrabble, if not always more satisfying.  So I tell her I’m not, and then she gives me the name of one of her friends who is looking for work, and I post it on the Shanghai Mama site. 

Two days ago, though, she asked if I was busy, I said no, and she launched into a tale that my Chinese is definitely not ready for.  Halfway through, she started to cry, which made it even harder to understand, but what I got from her is this:

Once upon a time, when she was just out of high school, the ayi fell in love.  Her paramour wanted to marry her, but her grandmother said that she could not get married, because her older cousin was not yet married, and how would that look? 

I did not understand several sentences after that, but it appears that for some reason waiting or expediting the acquisition of a suitable match for the cousin were not workable options.  Later, both the ayi and her sometime sweetheart married different people.  Whether the original beloved would have been a good match or not is up for debate, but it turns out that the man the ayi married in his stead was not--she has shown me her scars. 

She finally got successfully divorced a few months ago, and you could see the change in her--she appeared so much more relaxed and happy and energized.  She used that newfound energy, apparently, to go about tracking down her high school sweetheart.  How to do that in a country where there are only a couple hundred surnames, people rarely go by their first name, and basically everyone is in the process of moving or has just moved from a rural area to an urban area, is beyond me.  But track him down she did, and, while we were in the US, she went to go see him.  He lives a couple of hours away by plane, and I helped her buy her first airline ticket before we left (My performance on this, as on so many of my proudest China accomplishments, turned out to be less than perfect.  When she came back she showed me a bunch of pictures she’d taken from the airplane window, apparently by leaning across two people’s seats, since I’d failed to realize that obviously someone on their first flight EVER would prefer a window seat.).

She tells me she had a wonderful time, and she returned with an ipad that may or may not have been a gift from her long-lost love.  But she also told me he’s still married, although, she says…well, I’m not sure what she said.  I think it translates as something like “loveless marriage,” but it might have been “she’s a witch” or even “he could do better.”  Whatever it was, it was presented as a mitigating factor. 

I asked her if he could ever move here, she said no.  I asked her if she could ever move there, she said no.  I had to speak out.   “But I want you have better man!  Man without wife, man who lives in Shanghai!” I said.  And then she began to cry for real, and she said “for me, there is no other man.  I have been waiting 30 years for this man!  How could I look for another man?”  And that’s when I wished, just for a moment, that I was stranded in a taxi in an unknown city with a driver I couldn’t speak to.  

Wednesday, September 5

In case of emergency...

Yesterday, I went to speak to a group at the German Chamber of Commerce.  I haven’t seen that many blonde people in one room I was last in Iowa, but these were notably svelter, and with sharper glasses.  I was there to tell them what to do in case an emergency befell them in China. 

Because I’m an ER doctor, you can kind of see why they would think I would be a good person to give this talk.  But the logic doesn’t really hold up: I have literally never witnessed an emergency outside of the ER.  Well, unless you count the lady I saw lying in the street last month, just after she’d been hit by a car.  But at that time, I did exactly what the untrained bystanders were doing--told her to hold still and waited for the ambulance.  When they arrived I was able to provide a little information for them, since she spoke only Spanish and they didn’t, but let’s face it--they could have gotten her on a gurney without knowing how old she was and that she had hypertension and diabetes.  If she had been gushing blood and in cardiac arrest with low blood sugar, I couldn’t have done much more before the EMT’s arrival, certainly nothing more than anyone who has taken a CPR class is trained to do.  The fact is that, without our equipment, doctors are about as much use in emergency as a pathology textbook, and possibly less so, since you might at least be able to use the book to fashion a splint. 

But at any rate, the MD and my job give me a bit of credibility, and so, despite the fact that I haven’t done any of these things, I told them to:  get a first aid kit, make a phone list, get to know the neighbors, take a CPR class, know where the closest local hospital is in case you have a true life-threatening emergency and live on the far side of town (otherwise, of course, come visit us and our fresh-faced English-speaking staff at the hospital whose logo was prominently displayed in the mandated PowerPoint template I was using), think hard about whether an ambulance will really add much to their transport over a taxi, and keep a wad of cash around. 

It was, of course, the last two that got the group going.  Regarding the cash, they asked the next logical question about quantity.  I found it both impolitic and imprecise to answer “as much as you can afford to lose,” and punted to my boss, there at my side wearing his own slick glasses.  “Around 20,000 RMB” he said, without missing a beat.  That’s about $3000, and seemed as good a guess as any, until I started trying to imagine actually taking three thousand of my own dollars out of commission and leaving them on a shelf (or as he suggested, in a safe purchased for this sole purpose) in my house just in case some day someone in the family has such a severe and sudden illness that no one is able to get to the ATM.  I then tried to imagine scrambling to recall the combination to said safe, likely having gathered several years’ worth of dust by then, during that same emergency.  The Germans twisted the knife by asking, if they were to go sight-seeing to another area of China, were they really supposed to carry that kind of cash with them?  Which, I think, is the point when the intrinsic silliness of an American ER doctor answering such questions hit us all, and I moved on to the next imponderable.

One of the first things you notice after you move here is the tremendous amount of honking.   Chinese people seem to consider honking a mandatory part of driving, like checking your rear-view mirrors or using your turn signal, and they do it with the same regularity recommended for those commendable habits.  The second thing you notice is the lack of sirens amid the cacophony.  I don’t think I’ve heard a police, ambulance, or fire siren out my window in the entire time I’ve been here.  And I’d notice if there were, since it would be there for a while--the drivers in a typical Shanghai traffic snarl would be unlikely to be able to pull over, even if they were inclined to. 

Shanghai does have ambulances, though, and each one is supposed to be manned with a driver, a technician, and a doctor, which would make them apparently--if not in fact-- better staffed than US ambulances, as ours don’t generally carry doctors.  It wouldn’t, however, make them better-staffed than German ambulances, which all have doctors.  And all doctors are not created equal.  When I graduated medical school, I was technically a “doctor.”  I had done a full undergraduate degree and a full course of medical school, and had MD after my name.  But you wouldn’t have wanted me riding along in your ambulance, directing your resuscitative care.  It took another year of residency training before I was even licensed to prescribe drugs, and three more after that before I was released into the world to practice on my own.  In Germany it’s roughly the same. 

In China, however, high school graduates go to university for five years, and then they’re doctors.  Sure, they have to go work at a hospital for one to three years after that, which period sort of resembles a western residency program (or, more accurately, half of one), but from what I hear, the new graduates need to apprentice themselves directly to someone at that hospital, constantly demand that person’s attention, and learn to do things exactly that person’s way.  There is no formal curriculum, and no testing along the way until the very end, when they sit a licensing examination.  So even if it’s not until then that newly-minted doctors are allowed to staff an ambulance, if one were to happen to call one, and it actually arrived, you’d likely to be facing a worn-out kid familiar with only one way of doing things, manning a possibly ill-equipped van whose arrival-time was as dependent on the vagaries of traffic as any other vehicle’s.  Whereas, outside many of the compounds the expats live in, there is a line of seasoned taxi drivers waiting to whisk you away, any one of whom may actually know the quickest route to the nearest hospital. 

This puts anyone requiring transport to the hospital on the horns of a genuine dilemma.  The Germans asked me which to choose, but my time was almost up, and I was done pretending to have the answers, so I have them the same look I gave the Princess recently, when she asked me if she should choose the Barbie backpack or the anime girls one.  It’s my “You’re on your own, kiddo!” one, which has never been greeted with anything but head-shaking amazement at my unhelpfulness.  This was no exception.