How we end up living better every time we return to China

Maybe it sounds a little weird to think of making the most of a transition back to China. The goodbyes, 36+ hours of travel door-to-door, jet lag, and downward re-adjustment in comfort all make returning to your overseas home something to merely endure and survive, especially when young kids are involved. That’s still true for us. But we’ve also found there’s a great opportunity buried within each of our family’s sad and stressful biannual transitions back to the far side of the world.

Every second summer we spend two months visiting family and friends in Canada and the US (four states and one province). It’s great and we love it; lots of food and fun and camping and swimming with people we love and don’t get to see even close to near enough. But it’s not healthy in the sense that it’s a break from intentionally established daily routines that include sane sleep, eating, exercise, and relating. Plus, the leaving and the returning each have their own special stress.

Saying goodbye is one thing, but making your kids say goodbye to their grandparents at the international departures gate is just about the worst thing ever. It’s even worse than international travel with kids, which usually includes a long-haul flight followed by a layover followed by another flight that you barely make because your first flight was delayed (“Just hold it, OK?! Better wet pants on the plane than dry pants in the airport! Let’s move!”). Then there’s the step back down in convenience, cleanliness, and familiarity, plus all the stuff/dirt/bugs that has broken/accumulated/infested-and-died while you were away. We return to China physically and emotionally exhausted, out of shape, and relationally disoriented (for an extended period of time our kids haven’t had their usual amount of regular attention from us, and we haven’t had normal couple time, either).

It’s kind of funny: bracing for all that stress during our last two days with family in Canada is almost worse than actually going through it during the first week back in China. Sure, the first couple days of jet-lag and apartment cleaning/repair while trying to not take it out on your beyond-exhausted children aren’t awesome. But the level of discomfort I imagine each time never actually materializes, despite accurately predicting the general level of 麻烦 that awaits us. Each time, we slide back into our life here quicker and more smoothly than I expect us to.

And every return to China gives us an exciting opportunity that we plan for each time: the chance to intentionally alter our lifestyle for the better. Since our previously established routines and habits have been blown to smithereens by over two months of travel, it’s a prime chance to intentionally rearrange them as they start falling back into place, before they re-solidify. When your habits and routines have all been uprooted, it’s a chance to plant different ones.

Every time we come back to China, we end up living better than we had before. When we have about a week to go in North America we start thinking and talking about what we can improve, physically, psychologically, and relationally (I’d say “spiritually” but in my opinion it’s all spiritual one way or another), and keep adjusting it for the first few weeks we’re back.

Here’s some of the things we did this time, after returning to Qingdao a month ago on September 8:

  • Healthier eating: Mostly thanks to recommendations from my health-coach sister (not the product-pushing American-style health coach; the holistic, integrative kind), we tweaked our family’s diet, again.
  • Enhanced workout routine: I soaked up all the advice and info I could from my brother who’s a black belt in multiple martial arts and does judo and jujitsu training, and friends who do hardcore circuit training and strength training, and now my workout routine is more effective and time-saving.
  • Smarter family routines: Sometimes there really are engineering solutions to behaviour problems. Turns out you can avoid some common points of conflict just by adjusting meal/washing/clean up routines and staying on top of them. We talked it over from the vantage point of being outside our life here, and managed to identify and eliminate a couple of the kids’ daily opportunities for whining and noncompliance.
  • Smarter Chinese study routine: One way to get out of a study rut is to not study for two months. The last routine got me through the HSK5, but it didn’t feel good. I’m not going back to what I was doing, and instead have started a simple, doable, but more effective study routine that targets my weaker language areas and begins preparing me for the HSK6.
  • Long-neglected home repairs: For a very brief period of time after leaving the cleanliness and convenience of Canada, my tolerance levels are lower, and that means stuff gets fixed (gotta strike while the iron is hot, you know?), like the water barrier on our bathroom floor that keeps the shower water in the shower, the smoke fan in the kitchen, and the exhaust fan in the bathroom. I also thoroughly cleaned the DIY air purifiers, vacuumed, mopped and dusted the whole apartment and cleaned all the mold that had grown over the summer. And replaced all the dead houseplants with better ones. This would never happen in Month 2.
  • Healthier personal practices: I had personal practices before — what people usually call ‘spiritual’ practices — and those continue. But now I’ve also begun other ones. These are the kinds of things that intentionally set the direction and shape you’re going to grow in — the kind of person you’re going to become. Time will tell how far I’m able to grow into them. (Step 1 in becoming legit spiritual is Get Enough Sleep. We have an infant. I’m working on it…). But being captivated by a liberating, positive, all-encompassing vision is unlike anything else, even when Kid #3 is making you tired. (I’m happy to share details. Spoiler: Jesus.)

The end result is: our life is on a slightly better trajectory now than it was before we left for the summer. And it was the same deal after we returned from the summer two years ago. It makes us excited for where the next few semester will take us.

Let’s make the annual airpocalypse *fun*

Let’s make air pollution fun. I need your ideas.

The Air Quality Index (AQI) runs 0-500. I want to make hitting 300, 400 and 500 fun — like make a drinking game or something. (But, you know, not an actual drinking game, of course… I do want to remember my Januarys in China…)

Here’s what the numbers really mean:

  • Below 50 = Sane
  • 100 = Pretty Bad
  • 150 = Daddy, the air tastes funny
  • 200 = I’d rather eat a donkey again
  • 300 = Dude, where’s my car?
  • 400 = The sun doesn’t hurt my eyes anymore
  • 500 = AIRPOCALYPSE!

aqi_app_screenshotThe AQI determines when we turn on our D.I.Y. air purifiers, wear masks, and don’t let the kids play outside. In the screenshot, the first location is our area of Qingdao. The bottom two are where I grew up in Canada.

Why? Because an important part of living healthily here (is that a word?) — emotionally, I mean — is responding positively and constructively (or at least creatively) to negative things. Routinely complaining about stuff just makes you feel worse and conditions your character in ugly ways. Gallows humour might not be the best response, but it’s at least one step up from whining, right? ;)

It’s hardest to maintain healthy thought habits in January — the cold, dry, grey, dog days of winter between Christmas and the end of Chinese New Year — because homesickness is peaking (all those Skype calls and Christmas photos from far away), everyone has cabin fever, and the air pollution is at its perennial worst.

But I sense potential for fun here. At 300, everybody has to… what? At 400? At 500 what do we get to do?

1st Corinthians 13 — CSV translation (Culture Stress Version)

You know how making and serving food is an expression of love for a lot of people? I’d like to propose that, sometimes, eating it is an act of love, too.

After last night’s donkey parts dinner I’m feeling rather pious*, though I probably won’t be by the time I finish this post. So allow me to present a somewhat famous ancient passage in a fresh translation: the Donkey Parts Version (DPV). Or, if you’re of a more squeamish constitution: the Culture Stress Version (CSV), because that’s what this is really about anyway. ;)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

donkeyseacucumberspecialIf I slurp down this gelatinous slab of donkey blood without making a face, but do not have love, I’m like two mass exercise dance groups of at least 100 grannies each, both in the same public square and each with its own impressive sound system.

If I chew and chew and chew some more and finally choke down this unnecessarily large chunk of fried donkey penis just in time for the next toast, but do not have love, then I’m like that guy at the gym who brings his portable mp3 player — even though the spinning class music, the aerobics class music, and the house speakers are all already competing for prominence in the weight room soundscape — and sticks it right in the middle of the floor where we can more easily trip over it.

If I drink more Tsingtao than I want to so the host will have face and the guests won’t feel that I think I’m too good for them because the obnoxious and juvenile male social world is just that way, and surrender my body to a night of greasy indigestion, but do not have love, then I’m like thirty high-pitched Chinese preschoolers in a cavernous classroom of hard surfaces who won’t stop yelling Wàijiào Lǎoshī!! even though you’ve said Good Mooorniing! to them five times already.

Love is patient with the snot-faced little double-fingered nose-pickers even when the English you’re employed to teach them is beyond their developmental capacity as 3-year-olds, and love is kind even when their parents send them to school sick and they cough in your face and leave their boogers on your teaching toys. It does not envy people with long-term tourist visas. It most certainly does not boast about being a wàijiào; it is not proud.

Love is not overly rude to neighbours who honk their horn for twenty solid minutes in the middle of the night because they drove back so drunk they think someone else has parked in their parking space; it is not merely self-seeking but also seeks peace and quiet for the entire apartment complex. It is not easily angered by impossibly long strings of firecrackers at 3am on Chinese New Year’s Day, and keeps no record of wrongs, but rather considers such things merely as mildly humourous blog fodder.

Love does not rejoice in or act entitled to lǎowài privilege, but rejoices in the truth, like when Chinese friends feel close enough to burst your deluded protective bubble about how fluent your Mandarin actually isn’t, or like when you find out you’ve been saying or doing something wrong for years.

Love always protects face, always trusts that, on average, these people aren’t really any worse than the people you came from, always hopes for deep and meaningful cross-cultural relationships, and always always always always perseveres in language study.

Love never fails.

Have a happy, more gracious and more loving New Year! ;)

*(This does not happen very often.)

Links from above:

donley_penis
What a serving of donkey penis looks like. After we’ve already eaten half of it. (Gelatinous slabs of donkey blood not pictured.)

Chinese beach in July?

If you’re a foreign family in Qingdao, it’s understandable if the thought of spending a summer day at the beach makes you twitch. I mean, come on, it’s July in Qingdao; who’s gonna march their little yangwawas through the middle of this?

QingdaoinJuly

Your kids already get more than enough attention on a normal day from the relatively cosmopolitan, local Qingdao urbanites. But throwing them into the middle of a beach that’s packed with domestic tourists like a boiling pot of jiaozi ? That’s just cruel and unusual. And that’s why we know long-term, well-enculturated, fluent-in-Chinese families here who simply don’t do the beach at all.

But when it comes to our family, we’re a little more desperate. Not swimming outdoors in the summer would be… we might as well all be in summer school. So we’ve tried numerous things over the last four years, attempting to make the beach worthwhile. And I think we’ve pretty much got it down. Behold! This is us, on the beach in Qingdao, in July:

wedoqingdaobeach

Where are all the people? Why isn’t there a ring of photographers around your little blond, curly-haired children? How is it that I can see where the sand ends and the water begins? Over the last few years we’ve distilled a few tricks, like our particular place and times, and the result is that photo (four of those seven bodies are us). We do this nearly every Saturday in not-cold weather from June to September.

A “successful” beach day for us isn’t perfect, of course. On the day that photo was taken I had to politely turn away two requests for photos with our kids, and passive-aggressively angle-out photo attempts from two other people. Drawing a circle around our tent and sandcastle works as an effective barrier on about 95% of the people who pause to look, meaning only one person all day stepped over it to try and get their kid to stand next to ours for a photo (this is pretty much always a domestic tourist from an inland village or small town, where social norms are different). Most passersby don’t stop to look, but those who do merely stand outside the circle for a moment before moving on. An ATV drove up once to check us out. But that’s all in 5+ hours at the beach, which imo is a very reasonable amount of attention to tolerate as a foreign family in a wannabe 2nd-tier Chinese city.

You can see less-successful beach attempts from summers past here:

letsallgoswimming
Summer’s here! Let’s everyone go swimming! 夏天来了大家游泳去吧

Happy Mid-Autumn Festival 2015 from Qingdao!

I’ve eaten lots of moon cakes 月饼 over the years, but this is the first time I tried to make one:
preschoolmooncake
It’s a :cicada. (Purple stuff is not supposed to be showing.) Each preschool class makes them every year.

Happy Mooncake Day!

When little foreign kids go to a Chinese beach…

…this happens. It doesn’t always happen exactly the same way, but what happened this past weekend is pretty typical:


(Language students! Listen for these key words:
洋娃娃可爱眼睛漂亮美女姐姐玩儿。)

I know we’re not the only foreigners in China that regularly attract this kind of attention from total strangers. How do you handle it?

In North America, if some stranger started taking pictures of little kids at the beach or wherever I would automatically interfere and probably call the police. Because that behaviour is outside our norms; chances are too high the person is a creep.


Our two-year-old, with… I don’t know who.

But what about in China, when photographing, talking to, and even trying to pick up a stranger’s kid isn’t considered odd? I don’t mean that Mainlanders are always running around posing with each other’s toddlers; other Chinese toddlers aren’t exotic to them. And I don’t mean that China doesn’t have its fair share of perverts. I mean that this behaviour isn’t seen as violating anyone’s privacy or personal space. When it does happen, the idea that the person’s a pedophile doesn’t even enter people’s minds. 99% of the time, they really are just being friendly and curious in a socially acceptable way. (They don’t perceive an ever-present pedophile threat like North Americans do; their society just hasn’t ‘caught up’ to ours, apparently…)


“Wa! The foreign doll is so cute!” “Wa! The Chinese boy has no pants!”

It is stupid to respond coldly or meanly to a Chinese person because they don’t behave according to North American norms. Actually, that’s being an ethnocentric jerk. You’ve got to understand what their behaviour means within their social context, because that’s where you are. If you’re going to treat people like they’re doing something wrong when they genuinely don’t think they’re doing anything wrong, then you’d better be able to articulate a really good reason (or have a good reason why you have to treat them that way regardless — but “It’s so annoying!” is not a good reason).


A typical crowd for our family, from two weekends ago. Compare to the next photo below.

But feeling annoyed is totally understandable and natural. And not all friendly and curious attention is the same, because Mainland China is not a monolithic society:

  • The more cosmopolitan Chinese are more likely to ask you before taking pictures of your kids. Bonus points for them!
  • Typical 2nd-tier city urbanites with leisure time on a Saturday behave like in the above video: form a crowd, take photos, try to hold hands, touch your kid’s face, pick up or otherwise pose with your kid — like the kid’s part-human, part-tourist attraction. It often starts with some mom or grandma trying to get their kid to make friendly and pose with your kid. Collecting photos is a thing here. These are the majority in our experience in Qingdao and Tianjin. I understand getting annoyed with this, and I understand looking for ways to counter it, but I can’t see how it’s right to respond to them like they’re doing something wrong.
  • Peasants (people from the countryside or inland cities) either hang way back, seemingly intimidated, or do like the urbanites but louder, coarser, more blunt. Like yelling at your kid from a few feet away so they’ll turn for a picture, as if they’re a zoo animal: “Hey! Look at me! Look over here! Hey!”
  • The worst (in our experience) are those who don’t attempt to communicate with you or your kid and won’t acknowledge you even if you address them in Chinese. One day I was playing with our youngest in the waves, and a middle-aged countryside woman runs over, grabs our youngest while yelling to her friend to come take a picture, oblivious to our daughter’s efforts to get away — as if she’d just caught a big fish! — and to me yelling at her. I grabbed my daughter back while giving the woman an earful, but she never looked me in the face. This kind of thing almost never happens.

The problem is that for the most part they aren’t doing anything wrong, but to us foreigners it feels wrong, like we have a right to be annoyed or offended or alarmed (and in our own countries we would). So our default tendency is to respond negatively because to us their behaviour is inappropriate. And some days you just want to relax at the beach without having to deal with it! Some days, you feel like doing this:


I have mixed feelings about the moat; it just seems so… anti-social:
“Take a hint, people!”

Bad China Days and fits of anti-social sandcastle-building aside, here’s what we aim for:

  1. Kids’ physical safety does not get compromised. We are there, fully alert, creep radar running on Chinese and Western dual frequencies, ready to wield those shovels if necessary. And call me ethnocentric or whatever, but you are not sticking your finger in my kid’s mouth (yes I have batted fingers away.)
  2. If our kids indicate (verbally or non-verbally), or we suspect, that they don’t want the attention, then we fend people off immediately/preemptively. You can still do this politely and with finesse, though sometimes in the moment I’m more blunt than I should be. And this only applies to “special” attention; we expect our kids to be nominally decent to people (respond to normal greetings, say thank-you, etc).
  3. Plan ahead. If you’ve got an option where unwanted attention is less likely, then take it. When we go to the beach, we always aim for the least crowded areas.

Or you can send subtle, anti-social messages by doing things like making a moat around your picnic blanket:


It works! See? (Though it’s not 100% effective — such subtlety is lost on most domestic tourists and āyís over 45.)

Maybe that sounds kind of stringent. But in practice it translates into our kids getting a lot more interaction than the average foreigner family, I suspect.

Basically, we protect our kids, but (try to) remember that most of these “overly-friendly” (by paranoid North American standards) Chinese strangers aren’t doing anything wrong. They aren’t breaking their social rules, and if you respond to them like they’re being inappropriate, your response simply won’t communicate. And you’ll come off like a jerk. Which is understandable, since expecting local Chinese to behave like Euro-Americans is just dumb.

Some related stuff:

P.S. – Though sometimes I have to admit, I do wonder…

P.P.S. — Not actually recommending the sandcastle “spite fence”, though I’m definitely tempted to use it again. :)

It’s a good thing I don’t own a paintball gun in China

This neighbourhood always seems noisier when my daughters are sleeping. I don’t know if that’s because of the peasants’ motorized three-wheel carts, the Porsche, or that people think the best way to deal with strangers who park in their parking spaces is to repeatedly smack the car alarm until the owner comes out and moves it. (Mainlanders have this fantastic capacity for slowly achieving an objective through loud, repetitious tedium — meaning you’ll be worn out long before the car alarm slapper.) Man I want a paintball gun…