Early or lifelong identity problems?

8 Mar

Children are an emotional double-edged sword. They have the capacity, or rather power, to put you on top of the world when they show you their affection or attachment and to break your heart, even if unwillingly when very young. Around the time my daughter S. turned one, she split my heart in two. She woke up one morning, around 8:00 am, which is the time when her nanny H. arrives. I got into S.’s room first and H. came in right after me. As I was reaching for S. in her cot, she saw her nanny and raised her arms to her without even looking at me. A bit stubborn and in total denial, I lifted S. from her bed thinking she would realise it was me and stay with me at least for a quick morning cuddle. Instead she used her infamous terrorising technique of screeching screams and leaned unequivocally towards her nanny, making it clear whom her preference was for. This deeply upset me for some time. I complained to J. with a teary voice that S. didn’t love me anymore and I kept getting painful reminders of this by S. more or less every day throughout that week.

You get it, S. really loves her nanny which I guess, in spite of me feeling rejected by my own baby, is a good problem to have. She greets her with a big smile every morning. When we came back from Lebanon in September, after a 5-week stay, it was as if they had never left one another. To be fair, H. has earned this love. Not only does she take excellent care of S., she also spends a lot of time playing with and speaking to her. She is amazingly patient and converses with S. all day long in Mandarin mostly, with a few expressions of Shanghainese. She is twice as talkative as J. and I combined. So much so that S.’s first intonations sound Chinese and so are her first words (except for Papa). We hadn’t realised that until a trip to Europe where we were told that S.’s first noises weren’t the same as those of French, British or Lebanese toddlers.

While I was complaining about S.’s rejection to my cousins, it dawned on me that S. is probably going through a phase of thinking, or rather believing, that she too is Chinese. Although physically it couldn’t possibly be the case (she’s blond with blue eyes), she’s not conscious of what she looks like yet and I think she truly identifies with Chinese and, by default, Asian people. Think of it, she spends more time awake with her Chinese nanny than with us. Going out on the streets, she sees essentially Chinese faces who, due to her foreign features, blondness and – let’s face it – cuteness, are rarely indifferent to her. Her little buddies in our residential compound are a mix of Chinese and foreign kids, who are mostly looked after by Chinese nannies. She is therefore very much immersed in Chinese culture and language.

That S. may believe that she is Chinese and that only her parents are bizarre is actually something that J. and I have witnessed with our friends and neighbours’ daughter. The mum is Lebanese too and the dad Italian. We used to babysit their daughter regularly from the age of 4 months until S. was born. She is now four. Around the time she was 18 months, she would run around our place speaking Chinese to us, although she could clearly see we don’t have Chinese faces. She would run around our place shouting “wo lai le, wo lai le!” instead of saying: “I’m coming, I’m coming!” So much so that we would occasionally reply back in Chinese when we really wanted to make sure she understood us. However, with her parents she would speak her mum’s language, occasionally punctuated by Chinese words. Like S., she would be super friendly with Chinese people and really be attracted to Asian faces when abroad.

I still need to do my own little investigation and ask parents of other kids growing up in China, but I generally suspect that this is a common phenomenon amongst foreign children of a certain age who are looked after by Chinese ayis. These kids, if they spend a significant part of their childhood and teen age in a country which is not their parents’, will end up what is called “third-culture kids”, i.e. children who grow up immersed in cultures and languages different from those of their parents. These children, and later adults, are generally very good at navigating different cultures but the downside is that they also may not feel any sense of belonging in their parents’ country and culture of origin, or anywhere in particular for that matter.

3rd culture kids diagram

So here’s how our sense of self is supposed to work. Source: http://laurakeeney.weebly.com/third-cutlure-kids.html

 

I left Lebanon nearly 15 years ago now and, while I do feel it is still the home of my heart, until about a year ago (around the time ISIS came about) I always felt that, God forbids, should shit hit the fan in my life, I could always go back to Beirut. I often wonder how S. and her eventual sibling will relate to their “home” country Lebanon in the long run; whether, in spite of our efforts and regular visits, they’ll enjoy going there, appreciate its history, culture and uniqueness and melt in the warmth of its light or sight of the sea. I am all in favour for S.’s immersion in Chinese culture; in fact she has just joined a Chinese kindergarten. At the same time, I worry that Lebanon may just be another country for her and that she may not be able to develop any attachment to it or, worse, end up feeling rootless, with no sense of home for her multi-cultural self.

Where's my home

Source: melbourneriffraff.com.au

 

On hormones

7 Nov

I had a truly very easy pregnancy, for which I am really grateful. Unlike some of my friends, I’ve barely had any nausea or experienced any major complications or discomfort, which allowed me to remain very active well beyond my due date. I guess like any expecting woman, I had bouts of doubts and anxiety, especially after watching the news and all the crazy things going in this world (ISIS in the Middle East; global warming; pollution of air, food, water, you name it in China, etc.), and wondered why on earth would I bring a kid into life. But mostly I felt I was very serene during the whole nine months. I didn’t have any cravings or repulsion for particular foods or didn’t behave crazily at anytime. Or so I thought. In hindsight, the hormones did play some tricks on me, albeit on punctual occasions and isolated, but specific, events.

The crystallisation of these tricks happened to be T. the driver at J.’s office. The poor chap had of course the very best intentions at heart but the fact that he is culturally conditioned, his overzealousness and occasional nosiness during my pregnancy just got the best of me at a time when I wasn’t in full control of my reactions.

My resentment for him didn’t come gradually. It was triggered by his reaction when J. told him we were expecting a girl. He reportedly nearly choked on the spot in disappointment for J. Any remark on the fact that I was expecting a girl really put me off as much then as now, as a woman to start with and for my baby, unborn and already subject to prejudice. The guy couldn’t get over it and enquired a few times throughout the remaining months whether it was certain that we were having a girl. He really thought we were kidding or that results couldn’t be trusted. When I was nearly 8 months pregnant, he asked me: “So you are having a girl?” to which I calmly replied “yes”. He pondered for a minute and said, as if I had been pulling his leg: “nah, it’s a boy!” Even after S. was born, he texted J. enquiring whether the baby was indeed a girl.

That in itself, each time, drove me absolutely crazy. Unknowingly, he made matters worse for himself by sending me text messages telling me to take care of myself, rest, etc. It was out of consideration and fondness for J. and very well intentioned of course but by then I couldn’t stand the guy and would throw a fit every time he did anything at all. Whether he sent food, vitamins, text messages, told me I shouldn’t go swimming, or gave advice on which hospital to go to because (after having chatted with a nurse in our hospital and enquired about prices) ours was far too expensive and there were cheaper options. I had to tell him that I needed a doctor and staff with whom I could communicate and luckily the insurance was covering the costs.

My anger towards him became so irrational and obsessive that I once dreamt that he was going to pop into my hospital room unannounced and tell me and the nurses how to handle the baby. Or even try to impose his wife at home to help take care of the baby because we non-Chinese didn’t know any better. I would have to be very rude with him and tell him to fuck off and that I didn’t need him or his wife because my parents were here and that in other parts of the world people had newborns too and knew how to take care of them. Yes, the whole thing got very far in that little hormone-injected head of mine.

This self-winding up of mine continued for some time after S. was born and I would refuse that we go with him to the clinic whenever S. was due for a check-up. Thankfully, for him and my sanity, I’ve since then come back to my senses and do feel some degree of remorse.

Not that it recently occurred to me or that I am trying to justify the still fairly widespread tendency in China to prefer boys over girls, but I’ve given it some thought in the case of T. He has one child, a daughter, who lives in Beijing with her husband, child (I assume she has only one) and most probably her in-laws. In China, it is the tradition for the parents of the husband to move in with the new couple, so that the younger generation can take care of the older one and the older one can help out with the grand-child(ren). So T., as much as he loves his daughter, probably feels a bit screwed by the one child policy and the fact that he had a girl. In his early 60s, he doesn’t seem to have a comfortable retirement pension, if any and no one to take care of him and his wife but himself. He is sort of “doomed” to working many more years into his late age. Had he had a second child or, “better”, a boy that would’ve been his insurance for his old days.

With the abolishment of the single child policy last week (end October 2015, couples can now have two kids), 37 years after it was instated, the Chinese government intends to curb the forthcoming pension crisis. Hopefully it will also give a fairer chance for this working generation to be taken care of by their kids when they get older. In the meantime, T. happened to get in the way of my hormonal imbalance.

Deeply disturbed

23 May

The demographic issue in China is fascinating. The single child policy was set up in 1978 (and enacted in 1980) for the obvious reason of curbing the birth rate of the country. So (at least if I think of myself as still being young) it is not that old. In 2004 during my very first visit here, it had already struck me how convinced Chinese people are of this very drastic measure, how conscious they are too of their demographic “problem” and even that some of them feel a sense of responsibility to contribute to changing their country’s demographic profile. Coming from a tiny country (Lebanon) where the whole population (5 millions, including the current 1 million refugee population) is the equivalent of that of a third tier city in China, on a number of occasions I’ve had remarks such as: “It’s very good to have such a small population. In China, there are too many people” – a few times from taxi drivers as well as from people from other walks of life.

Even if it is being progressively loosened due to foreseeable pension funding problems, the single child policy remains a national matter and an individual responsibility. A long time ago now, I read an article that made me laugh. It reported with an unequivocal frown that Zhang Yimou, the famous movie director and mastermind of the Beijing Olympics opening and closing ceremonies, actually has four children! How unpatriotic! At the same time, I have been surprised by the number of Chinese people born post-1980 I met who have siblings. My first Chinese teacher has an older sister and more than a few of my ex-students also have brothers and sisters.

With the recent further loosening of the law*, it has become more acceptable to discuss the possibility of having a second child. I have often put the question to my Chinese friends or colleagues, out of sheer curiosity. While some of them do want a second child, it still surprised me how unused others are to the very concept. It feels that because so many people of my generation (I was born in 1980) and the later one grew up without a sibling that the whole idea is really alien to them and only seen through the lens of the financial “cost” of having a second child – which seems a bit reductive but understandable since you want to be able to afford the best for your offspring. Very recently however, it became clearer that there may actually be a generational damage regarding having a second child.

As I said, Chinese people are so conscious of their population problem and so unused by now to having a brother or a sister that it is even portrayed by media in part but also perhaps by new popular belief to be potentially harmful for the balance of the standard family of three. It was a conversation with two of my colleagues (one my age and the other 12 years younger, whom I consider to be highly educated) that revealed the extent of this damage. Earlier this week, I was asking my pregnant colleague (a singleton) whether she would consider having a second child. She said: “I don’t know… I hear parents cannot love two children in an equal way and will start to love the second child more than the first.” That in itself was a shock to me, the very possibility that generally parents’ love was limited to one child. Of course it can and does happen but it is rare and the family in question would be considered to be dysfunctional. Then my colleague carried on by supporting her statement by giving the example of a young (Chinese) teenage girl who committed suicide because her parents had another child. The worst part was to see how concerned both she and our younger colleague looked! I could see it in their eyes and feel the disapproval and anxiety on their faces of the possibility of having a second kid. I don’t know if it’s propaganda and brainwash or just sheer pragmatism, but either way I am still shocked that they could believe it and that media would portray having a little brother or sister to be so potentially harmful in the relationship between parents and their elder child. The mere idea of a brother or sister has not just become alien it has become inconceivable. I later found out that my younger colleague has a younger brother and has in fact really suffered from the son-preference culture that still prevails in some families in China (she also once shared that she really admired her grand-father for treating everyone, regardless of age, gender, etc. equally).

I may be a bit harsh here but I think what shocks me perhaps equally than this fear of bringing another kid into the family is how Sino-centred both my colleagues (and probably a whole lot of other, less educated people) are on this issue, how they couldn’t question this unfounded media or propaganda-generated theory or stretch their mind to all other countries of the world where the vast majority of people have one or more siblings and where the elder children are as loved by their parents as the younger ones.

*Until about two years ago, if both spouses were single children they were allowed to have two kids without paying any tax or penalty, however you want to call it. More recently, if just one of the spouses is a single child, then the couple is “allowed” to have two kids.

Thick skin and dilemma

21 Mar

I have been spending a lot of time with H., S.’s nanny. She started working for us three weeks ago. She is a soft-spoken and kind-hearted lady in her late forties with a lot of experience with young babies.

Both H. and I like to cook and I think that’s how we hit it off. We have a natural curiosity for each other’s cuisines and are keen to learn from one another. She cooked a few jiāchángcài (home dishes with pork mainly, including the famously delicious Shanghainese dish hóngshāo ròu) using many of the ingredients I already had (dried mushrooms and dried tofu) in my pantry but didn’t know how to use. She’s also explained to me at length which foods you should eat when according to the heat or lack thereof within your body (basic principle of Chinese medicine). Unfortunately, I am ashamed to say that so far I think I only understand 60% of what she tells me and am therefore not in a position to faithfully relate all of it but I get the jinx of it. I hope that with time I’ll get used to her accent (very Shanghainese whereby all the sh become s and the zh z) and build up my vocab.

Two days ago, I saw a small box in our fridge containing some kind of shapeless black paste. I didn’t ask H. about it, she’s welcome to put whatever she needs in our fridge. Over lunch, she asked me whether I had seen the box and offered me a piece. Looking at it, the paste could be many things; the first thing that came to my mind was a brownie with very dark chocolate. As I took a bite of the piece she gave me, I naturally asked H. what it was. She said it was lǘpí but it didn’t ring a bell. While she was trying to explain and even mimic something, the paste’s taste invaded my mouth. It wasn’t particularly horrible, though not good either. Mostly it was very strong. I continued chewing and trying to make sense of what she was telling me, I knew pí can mean skin but still wasn’t sure what it was. Then I finally understood, took my phone to double check the translation and suddenly my heart sank more than a little bit, when I figured that I was eating donkey skin!

As I was trying to recover from the shock and hide it, H.’s explanations started to become clearer. Basically she told me that eating lǘpí is very helpful during winter if you have some sort of deficiency (don’t ask me which one). She added that this one in particular came from the province of Shandong (northeast of China) and was of really good quality. I told her that the taste was too strong for me and that I wasn’t used to it, to which she replied that she couldn’t feel it but that her family thought likewise and wouldn’t eat lǘpí. She laughed when she said that they even ask her how she could it! Very kindly, she told me that if I didn’t like it, it wasn’t a problem.

I now have this remaining piece I bit into in my fridge. As much as I like to be open-minded or to think that I am, I am not quite sure what to do with it. I would hate to throw it, out of respect for H.’s kindness. What I am sure of is that I don’t feel like eating it. I don’t look forward to its taste and now that I know it is donkey skin (I have eaten Italian donkey salami a long time ago) I can’t stomach it.

Sigh.

What would you do?

Donkey skin

Lǘpí

Back into writing mode

19 Mar

Anyone who knows about or has visited my blog in the last 9 months or so must’ve noticed the lack of activity. I have clearly been very lazy over the last year even though it was not for the lack of events or interesting things I came across or experienced. The idea of dropping the blog altogether never crossed my mind and the very few times I had a look at the stats I was surprised to see that I still had a decent number of visitors despite not adding any new content. (For some odd reason I happen to have a very strong readership in Brazil so far in 2015. So much so that it has overtaken the US in number of views). Anyhow, maybe as a belated new year resolution, I intend to get back into writing and try to catch up for the past year. I hope I’ll be able to relate past events and experiences (though perhaps not in their strict chronological order) in an interesting and pertinent way and be able to convey the feeling I had at the time it happened. Before I start writing about these individual events and experiences, I thought I’d do a short recap of 2014 so that those among you who are not family or friends and read this manage to make some sense of the changing context.

So here we go.

Unequivocally, the most important thing that happened to me not just in last year but in my life is the birth of my daughter S. in late October 2014. So I have spent most of 2014 pregnant in China and have given birth in Shanghai. Therefore, indulge me if too many of the posts relate to pregnancy, giving birth and babies. I promise to try and make them interesting.

Due to the pregnancy and other reasons, we haven’t done much travelling in 2014. We went near Hangzhou for a couple of days with four friends for a quick Chinese New Year escape. I might write about it as the Chinese concept of natural reserve was a bit skewed we thought at the time. We went (again) to Beijing with J’s parents and sister in early May. And that’s it, nothing else in China or Asia in 2014.

We’ve had some important defections in the first half of 2014. Our dear friends M. and L. and their son I. moved to Beijing about a year ago. C. and E. and their daughter A. went to Seattle. Bastards. I still can’t get over it. On the other hand – not that it replaces the aforementioned’s absence – we’ve had the pleasure of having our small Lebanese community grow with new joiners and I’ve made good friends via the pregnancy channel.

Overall 2014 was a lovely and fairly sedentary year, very much centred on myself and my growing belly. What we missed in geographical coverage was made up for in equally interesting cultural differences and a lot of emotions. As many of the upcoming posts will relate to this topic, maybe it turns out for the best that I write about it with some distance as I now realise that some of my reactions at the time may have been a bit exaggerated – hormones not helping – and it’s probably saner to be able to reflect and rationalise some of it now. In any case, I hope you will enjoy reading about it.

Year of the Horse – Part 2: Dinner with my Chinese teacher’s family

3 Feb

The day after our Chinese new year baptism, last Friday, we, along with our friends L. and M., were invited to have dinner at my Chinese teacher S. and her husband K.’s house with their family (his side of the family to be precise – Spring Festival is celebrated with the husband’s family). This is the equivalent of being invited to spend Christmas at your friend’s place, so a real token of friendship (by my standards at least). Just for information, as K.’s was explaining to me, the first day of Chinese new year, Chinese people do fireworks but also stay at home and usually watch the national show of the Spring Festival on national television during which celebrities sing and entertain. This year, wearing a red dress for good luck, French actress Sophie Marceau, apparently a real celebrity in this country, was part of the show and sang “La Vie en Rose” in French with Liu Huan (singer and song writer) for the good people of the People’s Republic of China. See it on YouTube here.

But back to our evening.

We had already been invited to dinner at S. and K’s place some time before Christmas. J. and I had arrived about 10-15 minutes late and found all the guests already sitting at the table and waiting for us to start. There was no small talk or drinks before sitting on the dining table. It was a little bit embarrassing that everyone waited for us to start eating. This time, I insisted that we get there on time, especially that K.’s whole family would be around. We got there only five minutes late and thankfully, although many dishes were already laid on the two tables, we were not the last ones to arrive and nobody was sitting at the dining tables yet.

We were introduced to the family and were very warmly welcomed by everyone. There were four generations, with the grandmother, two of the mum’s brothers and their children and grand-children. One of the uncles was particularly talkative and we chatted with him for a while. He commented on our understanding of Chinese and encouraged J. to be more “nǔlì” i.e. hardworking at studying Chinese. He asked us about our drinking capabilities (how many cans of beer) and showed us the báijiǔ (Chinese white alcohol distilled from sorghum or maize, a traditional and VERY strong drink reputed to be absolutely vile), a very old one in small bottles, they had selected for the occasion. I was a bit nervous at the idea of tasting it. It is a much-dreaded drink amongst the lǎowài* community of China as it is a very acquired taste for us. Somehow I managed to escape it after over two years but tonight, clearly there was nowhere to hide.

The evening was lovely. Surprisingly, I liked (this) báijiǔ! Then again it was a very special one. We had fun conversation with K’s cousins at our table, tons of great food, with K.’s mum and other uncle tirelessly cooking as the rest of us were eating. The friendly uncle went back and forth between the two rooms to do “gān bēi” (bottoms up) with us and make sure we were eating well.

As other Chinese occasions, things tend to end up fairly abruptly. So around two hours after we had arrived, when we started to feel stuffed, some members of the family started to leave. We lingered an extra 20 minutes or so and then started to make our way out. We were the last ones to leave. I guess the sudden end shocks us less (after attending S. and K.’s wedding and having already had dinner at their place) but we probably still need some time to get our act together and actually leave.

Just as we were putting on our coats and L. and M. getting their son I. ready to go, K.’s mum gave us bags filled with a huge bags of home-made crisps (with white and black sesame seeds), two different (and big) pieces of beef (one cold-cut and another salted and dried one), as well as a full lotus root stuffed with rice (sweet and chewy).

What else to say… We were very moved to be so well and so generously received by a very special friend and her lovely family on the most familial celebration in Chinese culture. Good times!

* lǎowài: respectful word for foreigner

The Year of the Horse – Part 1: Celebrating with noise!

2 Feb

On Thursday and Friday, China and a few countries around celebrated the Chinese new year and the forthcoming year of the horse. After the year of the dragon and that of the snake, it is our third lunar new year – or Spring Festival –  since we moved to Shanghai. For the first time, we decided to stay around, first because we took too long to buy our plane tickets to Cambodia and second because we thought that we ought to spend a Chinese new year in China at least once. We had been told or warned by a few foreign veterans that spending Chinese new year in Shanghai was great, was terrible, was a bad idea, was a “special” experience, etc. etc. etc. The most precise information I got though was from a colleague who told me that she loved it because, overall, Shanghai is very quiet because most people head back to their hometowns. At the same time of course, one should expect a lot of fireworks. Not the pretty kind done by professionals in a wide open space for everyone to see. The small, noisy, non-visual type that anyone can buy and blow on the street. She also said that the only way to enjoy it was to take part to the hype. So I decided that we should embrace the whole idea. This year the holiday started on the day of Chinese new year (that was Thursday 30th of January). Those of us who didn’t flee the country went to work on that day. The city had already considerably emptied up and, after a short day at work, I ran a few errands before going for dinner with friends. At 5:30ish, the normal rush hour, streets were empty. Commercial activity, which never ever stops in Shanghai, was practically non-existent. Eight if not nine out of ten shops were shut, anywhere you looked. In addition, the very high pollution levels and consequent low haze and glaring light gave the city a pre-apocalyptic atmosphere,  intensified by the either distant or closer sound of fireworks interrupting the general, heavy silent. Truly an apocalyptic atmosphere suited for movies…

The AQI levels on that day

The AQI levels on that day

All shops closed on Kangding Lu, near home

All shops closed on Kangding Lu, near home

Normally due to all sorts of activities, you avoid walking on this side of Kangding Lu

Normally due to all sorts of activities, you avoid walking on this side of Kangding Lu

At the corner of Kangding Lu and Changhua Lu

At the corner of Kangding Lu and Changhua Lu

Jiangning Lu, normally really busy at this time of the day

Jiangning Lu, normally really busy at this time of the day

Oddly our friends managed to find the restaurant they wanted to go to open – Di Shui Dong (very good incidentally) on Maoming Lu. The restaurant itself is quite a warm place in terms of its décor and relaxed atmosphere. It was quite full and lively and therefore a welcome contrast to the outside vibe. There we met other friends, a group of six boys arriving with their stash of fireworks. Although J. was not keen about the whole fireworks thing, I insisted that we join them later as part of my embrace-the-event plan. And so after dinner, I asked a friend where we should actually pop the stuff (I might’ve spent too many years in France and the UK, being so mindful about health and safety issues) and was a bit disturbed when he found the question a bit stupid and replied “Just here… anywhere… on the street…” I didn’t quite have the time or space to tell him that we should perhaps look for a suitable place, we were already out of the restaurant and one of his mates was already lining firecrackers just at the entrance of the building. The guy wouldn’t listen to anyone telling him to do it elsewhere and just lit it here and there, causing more noise and smoke than anything else.

At the entrance of Di Shui Dong

At the entrance of Di Shui Dong

We then headed to a nearby (small residential) street close to another group of lǎowài (turned out it was my colleague, her family and friends) who had already started their festivities with their young kids and who were greeting one another with “Xin nian kuai le!” – happy new year in Mandarin. Our stock lasted half an hour I guess. It was fun, convivial, noisy, unconscious, slightly dangerous, spontaneous, childish, traditional, not very mindful of local residents or traffic, smoky, scary, not environmentally friendly at all and brought back childhood memories of celebrations of Eid el Saydeh (the Virgin Mary’s Day) in Lebanon… J. and I then headed back home while the others split to continue their evening. At midnight, all hell broke loose with noise levels truly high and fireworks reaching us all the way to the 18th floor and lighting up our flat with their colours. It lasted for a while into the night. But since then (3 days now), I can’t say that there have been more fireworks than the usual. I liked the whole experience and I will remember it fondly. We may not be locals and never will be but after the third one, Chinese new year is now part of our calendar and the lunar signs of the dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, etc. siding next to the scorpio, taurus, pisces, virgin, balance, etc. * lǎowài: respectful word for foreigner

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