Thursday, September 2, 2010

China Summer 2010: In our skin....

Summer 2010: In our skin….

It’s been three years since our family has been in China together, as a family, and three years since my daughters have been in the land of their birth. Jason and I have been back a total of five times (2+3), separately, since we moved to Rutledge, PA, in July 2007. Each trip we have yearned to be there as a family. We, as parents, still haven’t quite settled into our lush green storybook lives in the suburbs of Philadelphia and have missed the way we felt together as a family, fleet of foot but also on edge, straddling two cultures in an increasingly cosmopolitan and internationalized Beijing. But our daughters, perhaps more resilient and more fluid in their identities than their sentimental parents, have woken, daily, wondrously, into their Pennsylvania present. Here they bounce and trounce on backyard trampolines, sell lemonade to passers-by from makeshift stands under generous old trees. They race around the block on bikes, straight-backed and breathless, and then play dress-up in the attic, marveling through the window at birds nesting in our home’s old Victorian eaves. Sometimes I wonder if they remember China at all—they were ages three and six when we left. But when I go fishing, nostalgic, for their memories, they narrate snippets so odd and unfamiliar that I’m sure I’ve fished too far—that what they have retrieved is something from another place and time altogether. Asked about our sunroom in Beijing, they conjure up, in stunning detail, the landscape of the “Kids Club” at the Hilton where we once stayed in Jaipur, India, and the brilliant weave of the blanket where they sat upon an elephant’s back, long ago, when they visited their cousins in Delhi. They remember their ayi, but swear she spoke English. When asked if they remember her delicious dumplings and noodle soup, they recall instead the Nestle ice cream bars she bought them, surreptitiously, nearly every afternoon while Mommy worked on her dissertation, deeply immersed in 1930s China.

So we’ve wondered, time and time again, what it would be like to return to Beijing with our girls. Would our daughters finally remember who we were together as a family then? Would loose pieces inside of them rattle about and somehow, miraculously, click into place, adjusting their skeletons and stretching their skin? But no, of course, a return to one’s homeland is never really a return, but a new excursion. My girls traveled with me this summer, back to China for five weeks where we collected more loose pieces, adjusted our skeletons, stretched our skin. I had the privilege of co-directing a Chinese language, cultural and leadership-training institute called YingHua with a brilliant and inspiring partner named Bonnie (“Liao Laoshi”—Teacher Liao). In this capacity, I was “Mei Laoshi” (Teacher Mei), an identity and persona I rarely experience in my English-speaking world outside of China. In this context, my oldest daughter, Feifei, was a student participant in the social world of other student participants, most of whose ties with China are as deep and complex as her own. And my youngest daughter, Zhouzhou, alternated between being tightly bound to me, her mama (as she periodically regressed to the developmental stage she left behind three years ago in China) and being loose and bold on the streets of Beijing, bravely trailblazing with her Mandarin-speaking ayi in tow (who, once again, fed her daily doses of Nestle ice cream!). Jason joined us for the last week of the program, and then we traveled for a vacation week together as a family.

What follows are more pieces collected from our days as our China-selves. Most take the form of daily updates sent to the parents of program participants, chronically the intense and exhilarating experience of the program. Some take the form of emails I sent to my family and close friends, annotations to the daily updates with more specific snippets of the girls experience there. And lastly there are blog entries for our family trip to Qingdao, the four of us, China-selves and all, comfortably together again, at home in our skin.

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