New Understanding

Toddlers have tantrums. It’s just part of the job description. But it is so hard for parents because there is seemingly no logic, progression or pattern to tantrums. I find it hard to know how to predict and defuse a tantrum, they sometimes come out of nowhere. Just a few minutes ago, LG was sweetly sitting in my lap saying “XieXie Mama” as I helped her pull on her clothes in the morning. Then when I tried to change her top, suddenly she was flailing and yelling “Go Away Mama!” Ah I thought, perhaps I should give her more choices, so I pulled out a few options and let her choose. I had forgotten that there was one more option that unfortunately was unacceptable to me: topless. She chose that one.

It’s very easy to become frustrated in this situation. I’m rushing her out of the house so that the crying won’t set off  TG who is sleeping in the next room and can’t bear to hear her scream. We’re already late, I need to get her to daycare so I can start my workday and race through the day getting stuff done that I can’t do easily while she’s with me.  It’s kind of a recipe for a blowup.

I recently read something that helped me to empathize more with LG. It was a parenting guide, one of those short online articles that I squeezed in a read on a subway ride home. The article explained that tantrums are what happens when toddlers are trying to express themselves and are either not being listened to or not understood.

Wait a second, I thought. This sounds familiar.

In my 11 years in China, I’ve had more than my share of “tantrums.” They usually occur when I’m desperately trying to make myself understood, but my emotions are more raw than my language skills can cope with. And that’s when the tears run wild: when I’ve reached a limit to what I can express, when I’m feeling in a second language things I haven’t even tried to use my first language to explain. I’ve often had the experience of having to switch to English just to express myself in a calm and clear manner. Unfortunately, switching to English means that no one but myself can understand.  As you can imagine, it is utterly frustrating experience for myself and everyone around me.

I’m not proud of these tantrums. They erupt over little things and big things, and TG has to bear the brunt of them, because they mostly involve him. I’m not proud to share this fact with my audience, all 8 of you, but I’m doing so because when I recognized my own “tantrums,” I felt a certain empathy for LG. I may not know what it is that she is trying to express, or what exactly she is frustrated about. Many times I may not agree with her point of view, especially when it involves something dangerous like playing with a plastic bag. But I know that feeling of frustration exactly.  I know that point where emotions flood and my ability to express myself is drowned in tears. So I try hard not to lose my patience with her, because I know she can’t control these tantrums until she learns how to express her feelings clearly. That empathy has helped me keep my calm as a parent. I don’t know whether she can feel that empathy, but I try to let it show in how I deal with her, even when we don’t agree.


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Morning Shadows

This is the shadow projected through our windows each morning onto the living room wall. Quite beautiful don’t you think?

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Empty Lot’s New Life

For the past few years I’ve had this fantasy of launching seed bombs into the empty lot behind our house. It would be my subtle message to the local government that while I know this lot will eventually become just another high rise or upscale gated community, wouldn’t it be cool if it could be a real public space that serves the community? Then they would see the beautiful wildflowers and decide to make the lot into a community garden. Hah, yes I know how silly and idealistic that sounds here in China, but hey, this is a fantasy, remember?
But low and behold, nature beat me to it! I looked out the kitchen window the other day and saw that the empty lot is a sea of green grass and rapeseed flowers are growing strong. What a lovely sight amidst the sadness of this demolished lot.

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Nongtang Sounds #1: Alley Karaoke

I do love working from home- the easy commute, the ease of switching between work and home, being able to wash the dishes or hang the laundry during a break. But sometimes I’m reminded of the advantages of working in an office. For example on a balmy weekday afternoon, when my alley neighbors decide to break out the mini karaoke machine and belt out classic hits…right under my office window! They started at 3 or so and were at it until at least 9. It is in some ways endearing…I do love how quirky they are and admire them for their ability to enjoy life’s pleasures without having to move far from their front door. But sometimes a little peace and quiet would be nice. That’s when I have to head to a cafe or crash the journo office where my friends work…or just put in the earphones and jack up some peaceful sounds! I snuck this bird’s eye photo of them from our rooftop garden.

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Hot Shower…in two parts

I thought that our days of cold showers were over when we replaced our water heater. Used to be, somedays there would just be no hot water. So we either waited a few days a bit to take a shower or took a ice-cold one. Then one day, we decided this needed to change, so we got a new hot water heater. Really, it is so chilly indoors in the winter sometimes that the only thing that will warm you up is a hot shower. All was well until last night I took a shower after a long run. Shampooed, lathered….and the hot water just stopped. Instead ice cold water came out of the tap instead. If I had “been in the army for 6 years” like TG, I would have just continued with my navy shower but I have long since stopped trying to be like TG. Instead I wrapped a towel around me and headed to the relative warmth of the living room where I waited, still all soapy for almost a half an hour. Then I returned to our chilly bathroom and continued my shower. Ah, the joys of living in an old house! I realized later that my neighbors were doing a load of wash downstairs. So I will not be showering while they run the washing machine ever again. And perhaps we need to revisit the solar water heater option again. Dreams don’t die!

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Little Red Envelopes


Part of the joy of being in a cross-cultural relationship is that everything that seems right is actually very very wrong. Here I was thinking I was being polite and giving good gifts, and I find that I must seem incredibly rude to my Chinese relatives.

Apparently all that time I was making handmade toys and cookies and buying children’s books for my niece and cousins, I should have really been giving them red envelopes of crisp new US dollars. Next year I’ll change my ways…or maybe I’ll just continue to be that crazy foreigner. Because even though I now have a better understanding of Chinese culture, I still have to say I like the values I’ve grown up with better. I’m not a pragmatic person, I like sentiment. And I’m proud of it.

TG is no help. He may be Chinese but he is hopeless at explaining much of Chinese culture to me because he doesn’t really understand it himself.  Talking with Professor Yu Hai the sociologist was the most helpful. He made me realize how ridiculous we Americans must seem to Chinese, with our weird habits of thanking people for their time, insisting that everything be fair when it is clear nothing is, and giving gifts when what people really need is money.

Well here it is…enjoy! Click on the link to see the story or just press play above.

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Noodle Making Robot!

Don’t those words just unleash your curiosity? I know they did for me. TG’s uncle has bought a noodle-making robot for his restaurant in the small town he lives in. And so of course I thought I have to do a story about this-working on it now for radio.But in the meantime, here it is, on its day off during Chinese New Year. Not the greatest photo I know, there’ll be better ones later.


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Where I’m At

Some days even this seems like setting the bar too high for myself.

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Henan Postcard #12: The Ride Home

TG drove 23 hours straight with only bathroom breaks from Henan to Shanghai. The highway was closed because of the snow so we had to drive on the provincial road in flurries of snow. So impressed with his driving skills. It reminded me of driving in Rochester.

new year's chicken


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Henan Postcard #11

Keeping Warm in Henan During CNY

1. NEVER take off your coat.
2. Wear a coat under your coat.
3. Check your self pride at the door. Giant fuzzy pajama bottoms and coats are acceptable attire. So are big fuzzy slippers.
4. Soak your feet in hot water at the end of the day.
5. Don’t take a shower at home (there’s hot water, but the walls are paper thin and there’s no heat, so best to avoid).
6. Take a shower at the bathhouse, where at least there is no wind blowing on you while you change.
7. Hot water bottles.
8. Very heavy blankets.
9. Turn on the portable radiator, but not the air conditioning unit (it will blow the fuse).
10. Drink lots of hot water.
11. Go outside. Then coming indoors might seem warmer.

12. Go to bed early and spend your evenings huddled in your bed with the electric blanket on.

Some more photos I’d like to share.

playing chess

cute dog around town

I bet you’re wondering what this next one is. No, this rocket truck is not preparing for warfare and it doesn’t shoot missiles. Instead, it shoots confetti and leads the pack at most every wedding procession in this rural area of Henan, including mine 3 years ago.

shoe mender


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Henan Postcard #10

It is NOISY here. Ok, for sure, that’s because it is Chinese New Year and firecrackers can go off at all hours of the day and night and no one even blinks an eye). I remain amazed at LG who has impressed me a second year in a row with her ability to sleep through firecrackers going off in the middle of the night and in early morning. She even sleeps until 8am! What’s up with that? In our Shanghai apartment it is not exactly noise-free, but it is much quieter than here…but LG can’t seem to sleep past 7, and sometimes is up even earlier. Can someone explain this please?

Even when it is not the New Year time, things don’t calm down much. You thought life in rural China is peaceful and quiet? You are wrong.  Things are just noisy here at least in town. It must be much more peaceful out in the villages but whenever I visit hereI feel like the volume is dialed up a few decibels.

This leads me to a gift that LG’s grandmother bought her that will definitely NOT be making its way back to Shanghai with us. Admire it: A child-size electric car that blasts Gangnam Style and Lady Gaga. It is so noisy that you could probably hear it all the way at the front of our alley in Shanghai. Check out the car logo on the front grille- one more ring than an Audi car (the favorite of government officials).

Look out! 5 year old Xuan Xuan has already mastered driving on the roads!

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Henan Postcard #9

Another day inside working on a deadline for a magazine article, so here’s some photos I took from a few days ago. The sky is so hazy (polluted?) that I comfort myself that its not great for taking photos anyways.

I absolutely love Chinese babies at New Years time. In TG’s hometown they are always decked out in fabulous little hand knit rabbit ear/cat ear hats, decorated with plastic flowers for the holiday season. Each year I tell myself I simply must learn how to make one of these caps!


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