Sunday, September 18, 2011

Animal Love

I knew we would have to confront the no-pets problem. I just wasn’t expecting to stare it in the face my first jet-lagged morning in China. But there I was peering down at my daughter in the earliest hours of dawn on a narrow street in Nanjing as she bowed and reached with gentle voice and hands for that quivering ball of fur: sweet puppy. Yes, he’s soooo dear, I tell her. And he likes you, doesn’t he, he really wants to make friends with you…and what a sweet friend he is. But no, honey, I think he has a home already. Look at his round little belly — someone’s been feeding him, and he looks so clean doesn’t he? OK, lovey, it’s time to say goodbye, let’s leave him to chew now, let’s leave him to rest now…let’s love him, let’s bless him, and let’s leave him to be…

It is hard to fathom, when a puppy is licking your hand with its warm and rough tongue, that any hand other than your own should be feeding it. It is easy to imagine that you are the center of the universe when a dog looks in your eyes and directs every wag and wiggle to you, alone. I knew my words to my daughter were of little comfort, but they had to be said. The puppy and my daughter were about to stake their claims on one another, but this is a piece of their futures they have little control over.

FF and Sandy back in Rutledge, PA
And so it was, on my first morning in China, that I was forced to confront the most painful part of our relocation: the parting from our pets. My sweet girls are currently without our puppies and kitties. Our pets have remained behind without us—one pup has her new home with the daughter of her first “owner”, down the street from our old home in Rutledge, PA; the other is at home with our dear friends, Helen and Joel and Isa and Felix, in the neighboring borough of Swarthmore. Our cats are happily ensconced in my sister’s home in Denver, where I regularly see them on Skype, looking regal and rooted on her plush couch as she updates me on their latest antics.

Smokey and Cirrus on the porch in Rutledge
 It helps to invoke the “our” word when forced to contend with this separation and parting. The “our” part of “our puppies,” I remind myself, has always been larger than the immediate circle of our nuclear family, and their home larger than the old Victorian and fenced yard in which they romped when they were most exclusively “ours.” All of them came to us with previous lives. Both cats were street kittens in Beijing, and both of them found their way independently to our stoop, their former travails a mystery. “It’s good luck for a cat to come to your home,” said our Chinese ayi. And so it was, twice over.

Our golden retriever, Sandy, was five when she joined us a year after her first human mom lost her battle to cancer. Our youngest canine, our shepherd mix, Bodhi, was found by my colleague and some students—days old and eyes still shut—separated from his litter on the streets of Chongqing (see my previous blog from May 2009). I helped to hand raise him the first month of his life, and after failing to find an acceptable permanent placement for him in China, my husband and I tenaciously navigated the logistics of bringing him home to us in the U.S. But the rescue of “our puppy” would not have been possible without the Chinese vet who fostered him until he was big enough to travel, the Chinese students who mediated his care in our absence, and most importantly, the generous contributions of my friend and colleague, Paula, and her compassionate brother who financed “our puppy’s” journey home.

Bodhi, after stepping out of his travel carrier, home at last.

Even before our move to China, the “our” in “our pets” was huge. That “our” has expanded as they’ve settled in their new homes, compelling me to consider that the universe of an animal’s love may have several, and shifting, centers.
Bodhi and Jazz in Rutledge

Our animals’ love for humans has found a new home, but what of my little family’s love for animals? Our pets were more to us than companions in hearth and home; they were a daily invitation for us to move beyond our sometimes petty and sometimes serious concerns, and remember that love and connection were always just a heart’s turn and a hand’s reach away. Bodhi, short for Bodhisattva, was named with our awareness that animals are supreme teachers of compassion. Sure, our pets were a fair amount of work, and sometimes in their love and in their giving they demanded a great deal. Please, please take me for another walk! Oh, come on, do you need to work, I want to play with you! No, I will not stop barking, my job is to protect you and there is a scary world beyond that fence. Purrrrr…your lap is mine and only mine and I don’t care if I’m getting my fur all over your skirt…by the way, I pee-ed on the basement floor because you all left town for too many days. And here’s another dead bunny, look, I brought it just for you, excuse the mess, but you prefer them decapitated, don’t you?

Yes, they demanded a lot, but in this they also helped awaken our own compassion, a task made easier as they softened our hearts with their continual streaming of unconditional love.

And their absence leaves a gap; it's an amputation of sorts. Lately I’ve been observing the ways in which we have been seeking to nurture this special kind of love.

The girls have been setting mice traps: not the kind to ward off rodents, but the kind to attract them as pets. They act as if it is all make-believe, but I know there is an element of seriousness to this. I did, after all, catch them sneaking real cheese to lure their furry friends, and after I warned them against this, I caught them trying to scent their newly constructed origami cheese cubes by rubbing these with their dinner napkins. I have not seen a single mouse since we’ve arrived in Nanjing, but we may have mice yet.

Fei Fei and her old friend, Savannah, have a history together of making mouse houses. Once back in PA I found an apologetic note to the imagined tenants of these fanciful castles:

Dear Mice friends, I wish you could come play with me. Won’t you come play with me? But if you do MY CATS WILL KILL YOU. What should we do??? Love, your friend, Fei Fei.

The cats are gone, and for now, the mouse houses are not enough to pacify my girls. And there are, after all, strict regulations about having pets in our apartment. So the girls have become sneaky about this — we can’t bring an animal into our home, but what if one were to come to us?

The absence of our pets brings the animal kingdom at large into sharper focus. In a Skype session with my sister-in-law I learn that her mother’s small bird, a companion of 20 years, has died. Petless in Nanjing, I feel doubly bereaved as I’m reminded that my late brother once made a home, and found a mate, for a lost finch. Though we think of birds as belonging in the wild, sometimes they are happily at home in a human nest. The girls and I see birds everyday. On our morning commute to school, before the curve of a road lined with sycamores, we pass bamboo cages of songbirds, brought out to air by the doting elderly men who adore them. They hang them on tree branches and on fences, letting them fill their small lungs with the morning air, as these grandpas talk to them in confidential tones. We greet the birds daily, marveling at their small and expressive eyes and faces. Their beautiful cages present us with a dilemma: look how much these little creatures are cherished, but Momma don’t they want to be free? We imagine they yearn to spread their wings and take flight; yet we know how loyal and loving they would be if one such bird were to be our own.
Beyond our fish bowl apartment there are flocks of birds, and these too have captivated our imaginations. Look momma, they’re back, the girls call to me as I write. We get out the field glasses that survived our summer travels and try to catch them closer, in flight. Their wings flash white, then black then white and their flight is like a dance, rising and falling between buildings. Sometimes there will be two flocks and they appear to be choreographed in tandem, separating into two formations and then rejoining, or perhaps engaged in a kind of team tag. ZZ laughs heartily at their cunning maneuvers, while FF and I continue to muse: are they domesticated or wild? Could they be rock doves or pigeons housed in lofts, or do they nest in the eaves of those towering buildings? Are they currently migrating or will they remain with us all winter?

Here, in Nanjing, there are birds that fly free, and canine life goes on in Rutledge. I receive an email from my neighbor, Moira, conjuring up our former home. It contains a photo taken of Sandy, who made an appearance with her new family at the annual borough yard sale. Sandy apparently sought out Moira’s sons, Alex and Sam, amongst the neighbors turned peddlers, and characteristically wedged her head between Sam’s knees in greeting. She looks more gray than I remember, but isn’t that how memory works? Beyond her, in the corner of the photo, I can see the distant walls of our mustard-yellow house and the porch where I sat with my pets. Last week there was an email from our realtor concerning our renters: would we permit them to get a dog? Jazz and I practically leapt for joy: our house will once again be graced with a snout and tail. What’s wrong with a few more scratches in our well-trod hardwood floors? In an email to the realtor we convey that we’ll accept their offer of an increased security deposit, but decline an offer for an increase in rent: “In our house, pets stay free.”

So it is that animals remain, regenerating love, in those spaces we’ve vacated of our former lives. We’re still yearning to learn their place in our present, as we continue to construct our lives. I had always imagined animals would be central in my world, but I don’t know what that means in the here and now.

Separated from our girls by miles, Bodhi currently has a boy to love him. Sweet and good Felix, loving Felix, who had, for his last birthday a party at a small nature center, a party that included pony rides and horses. The corral and stables were alive with animal life: in addition to the seven or eight horses and ponies, there were two or three barn cats, several yippy and exuberant dogs, and a huge tortoise that lazed in the sun. Joel, who is Felix’s father, must have noticed my bliss, because he observed, “You’d be right at home here, wouldn’t you C? I could see you in a place like this, you with all of your animals.” There it was, an alternative life, laid bare in the brilliant autumn sun.

That was before this alternative life emerged, and once again, the sun now waning, I’ve caught myself staring out our windows, captivated, my heart riding every dip and rise of those mysterious flocks of birds. They seem to appear whenever I conjure them. I look for them between the buildings, I wait and I watch and then suddenly they appear. It doesn’t matter whether they are domesticated or wild, or to whom they belong. These soaring birds are more than a heart’s turn or a hand’s reach away, but my girls and I turn to them nonetheless, as we seek a place for this special love, this animal love, to nest.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Accompanying Spouse

Last week, my friend, Rowena, posted a comment to my blog appreciating my observations about my girls’ nesting in our new home, but requesting to hear more specifically about my own settling in. I read this comment from the cafe at the Nanjing International School—not the cafeteria, but a cafe designed as a space for parents, complete with wireless internet, an espresso machine, and windows overlooking the swimming pool.  
I had retreated there for a morning of writing, but quickly became de-centered when a group of moms arrived and began playing mahjong at nearby tables. Shortly afterwards, another group of moms gathered to chat at a neighboring booth: a chat that quickly turned into a gripe session about Chinese bathrooms, Chinese drivers, and the perceived incompetence of their household help.
I had a strong reaction to this clicking of mahjong tiles and tongues, distracting me from composing a response to Rowena’s query. How am I doing? In this setting, in this cafe? There were voices all around me and conversations. There were the British and Australian voices my ear was attuned to, but there were the German and Korean conversations as well—conversations I had no access to.

Still in the thick of relocation, I know very few Americans in Nanjing. In this international city with its compounds of foreigners, Americans simply are not the majority, and I realize this is shaping my Nanjing relocation experience in ways that mark it as very different from our settling into Beijing, where we had many American friends. The scarcity of Americans doesn’t seem to bother the girls one bit.  They were tentative on their first visit to the school: Fei Fei held her father’s hand as we walked through the school’s lengthy hallways and breezy corridors; Zhou Zhou hid behind sunglasses and a book she eagerly borrowed from the school library (which happened to be Aliki’s humorous book called Manners).  But after their first full week of school, the girls are very much at home.   
Fei Fei has made one American friend, a sweet girl in her class name Meghna, most recently from Michigan, but originally from India. They travel in a gaggle of girls from different country, and I’ve noticed an alteration in Fei Fei’s speech: a careful annunciation of syllables in a slow and deliberate manner, as if she doesn’t expect the listener to understand an utterance of a faster clip. I don’t believe Zhou Zhou has any American friends, though I haven’t asked her. I just know that she plays most with Ella, Mizuki and Yoonji, none of whom are native English speakers. She is no longer happy with the peanut butter or ham sandwiches I send with her to school, but begs me to buy her Korean noodles that she can bring to school for snack, placed between cucumber spears and cherry tomatoes in a bento box we purchased at a local mall.
Yesterday I observed Fei Fei’s gym class where the students were engaged in cooperative games working in teams, dashing back and forth and using various body parts to estimate the width and length of the gymnasium’s playing surfaces: badminton courts, basketball courts, and the boundaries for indoor “football”. Their estimates were eventually rendered into the international standard of meters and they will chart these compiled numbers in their study of “Maths.” I watched Fei Fei giggle and run with her classmates, then huddle with them, heads close together, as they strategized how they would make their next sets of measurements. Badminton, football, meters and maths: the novelty of this British English didn’t seem to phase her one bit. She was given a task for engagement and the terms themselves seemed hardly relevant. Just as I was feeling a pang that I wasn’t part of a class, or a team, the gym teacher—a Canadian who goes by “Mr. Andy”—handed me a box of pencils and asked me to support the students in recording their findings. It was like a lifeline, really, this simultaneous calling out of the teacher and mom in me. I circulated with my box of tools, bowing to join the circles of other heads.

I must confess that I’m in culture shock despite all of my other visits here. I’m reminded of a few things from my past experiences. I remember that making friends in a new place is always unnerving for me—those first hellos, introductions, and then partings after parties are often fraught with a curious blend of awkwardness and expectation. And I’m reminded that we’re not always our best selves in the throes of relocation, for there is something inherently regressing, developmentally, about the experience or relearning how to take root. It’s easy to identify this in my children, but more difficult in myself. This morning the girls played that they were babies for a brief period, filling the apartment with a noisy babble. ZZ actually wore a diaper she had scavenged this summer from the bathroom cupboard at her grandparents’ home in Missoula—a remnant from a visit there as a toddler. Seeing her and her sister romp this morning, I couldn’t believe she can still fit into a diaper, and that she played her costumed part so well. Bare-chested and soft-limbed, she called incessantly over and over, “Momma...Momma...Momma” as she fast-crawled across the floor and embraced my knees and ankles, pulling at the legs of my yoga pants. Two hours later, she is rocking out with her sister to “Gangsta” by TuneYards, as if this strikes them, intuitively, as a fitting anthem for our urban experience. From toddler to pre-tween, just like that. Two hours later, they are back again to their younger selves, fighting over a bag of moon cakes like a couple of preschoolers, their tugs and pushes flailing and preverbal, demanding parental intervention.

Experts on culture shock will tell you that during relocation families often become stressed in having to relearn some basic survival skills we may take for granted in more familiar climates. (Jazz has blogged about this.) In relearning how to meet our needs for food, clothing and shelter we encounter our smaller selves. I have led so many students and friends on their first visits to China and have forgiven their own predictable regressions, yet I can still forget this pattern. Thinking back on my experience in the school’s cafe—my disdain for the culture-shocked women—I wonder where my compassion was. What prevented me from hearing their fear? They are mothers, like me, entrusted with young lives to keep healthy and safe, but much of what they know of how to keep their kids alive and thriving is being challenged. I overheard one mother say, “I feel like I don’t know how to wash dishes here in China. I mean, do you think I should give the dishes a final rinse in boiled water after I’ve washed them in the tap water? How do I know that the bacteria that was in the water isn’t now coating my dry dishes?” She wasn’t joking—her question was sincere and it’s not a bad question—and none of her companions had an answer for her. I wish I had stepped over to the table then and there and introduced myself and reassured her. I remember what it was like to become a mom in Chengdu and to fret about sterilizing my daughter’s bottles. And we all survived. What prevented me from sharing my wisdom? Moreover, what prevented me from becoming a companion to her in our shared dislocation? Sure, I know how to feed, clothe, and keep my children healthy in China, but I’m relearning how to put down roots, how to deal with discomfort, and how to make new friends.

My own discomfort, perhaps, with my own liminal state, is what held me back from engagement. The women at those booths and at the mahjong tables are what used to be termed, “trailing spouses.” Like me, many of them have been through multiple relocations necessary for their husbands’ jobs. The term has since gone out of vogue in intercultural consulting circles, replaced by the more equalizing term of “accompanying spouse,” but it is still alive and kicking in many international circles, including the admissions staff of the International School. And the last thing I want to be perceived as, the last thing I want to experience myself as, is a trailing spouse. I am very aware that I am not “trailing,” but I did leave my tenure-track job to move my family to China, supporting my husband’s new professional opportunity. For the first time in years I am not revving up to teach courses this semester, but am instead constructing a life. I am growing in new ways—I know this. I can feel the pull in my muscles, the ache in my bones suggestive of a strengthening, a lengthening that must occur. I have goals, ambitions, hopes and dreams for my time here in Nanjing.

At our admissions appointment at the international school I was given an introduction to ways I might recreate myself in Nanjing, offered to all new families arriving at the school: there are fitness classes, parent leadership opportunities, charities to volunteer for, and the Nanjing International Club with its barbeques and excursions. The menu was exhilarating, the possibilities dizzying.

I’m not sure what on this menu I’ll choose from. For now, what I find most compelling are walks with my girls in our new city, and the stacks in the school library. On Friday, after my cafe experience, I retreated to the library and checked out three books: Edward Gulick’s Teaching in Wartime China (with great material for my scholarly research); Roy Kesey’s Cultural and Historical Guide to Nanjing (to guide our city walks); and a volume called Daily Life in the Medieval Islamic World by James Lindsay (to help me weave my girls’ bedtime stories about a Jewish girl named Lila who lives in ancient Baghdad). I’m not sure if the impulse for more books is indicative of my drive to escape or my desire to take root, but I suspect it’s a little of both.

Last Saturday we went to the annual welcome barbeque of the Nanjing International Club. As Jason and I huddled together in a patch of shade in the sweltering heat, we were approached by one of Fei Fei’s teachers, genuinely eager to meet us. She is Canadian, and after introducing herself she said, “Mariette has already told me all about you. Her dad is directing some kind of academic program and her mom is a writer.” I blushed: my daughter described me as a writer. Not a professor, not a teacher, but a writer. When did she establish this identity for me? When did she transform what I have viewed as possibility into her reality? I looked at her teacher and smiled, “Yes,” I replied, “Jason is here to direct the Hopkins–Nanjing Center based at Nanjing University…and I am here to write books.” I left out the part about teaching next semester (though I do have a teaching gig on the docket). I left out the research and professorial aspects of my life. For that moment I was willing to acknowledge that I too have arrived somewhere new.

(For information on the inspiring ways in which Mr. Andy’s P.E. lesson from last week is integrated into the I.B. curriculum see his website).

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Dislocation, Relocation

Though I’ve traveled to China multiple times since leaving our home in Beijing four years ago, this trip is different. I’m seeing the place with new eyes. Well, each time I arrive here I can’t help but see things with new eyes. China is changing so quickly—it’s what any expat will say to another after we’ve been away, however briefly. Most often the changes one refers to are connected to China’s rapid material development: the geography of a city has changed, buildings have been torn down, whole neighborhoods razed, subways and train lines have been built. There are new shopping malls and theatres, and everywhere, cars.

But the eyes I’m seeing Nanjing with now are those of the global nomad setting down stakes. I’m measuring my surroundings, sizing things up in our new home. My husband, Jason, has taken a job in Nanjing co-directing, with his Chinese counterpart, the Hopkins–Nanjing Center: the oldest and only such collaboration, in one of China’s most historically important cities. Yet it’s a city I’ve never been to before save for five significant days when we came here to claim our second daughter, adopting her in the offices of the Ministry of Civil Affairs. For that visit, nearly six years ago, the city itself was inconsequential to me. It didn’t matter that I’m a historian of Republican China and this was the seat of Chiang Kai-shek’s government and the city itself bears the physical evidence of China’s pre-revolutionary commitment to modernization. I don’t think I even purchased a map. I was more interested in the topography of our suddenly enlarged family, localized to the physicality of the new life in our midst: the small pudgy hands, the large dark eyes, the thick mop of hair and quick limbs of my newest and smallest daughter. At fourteen months, she sat light on my hip, limbs stiff before succumbing to the sling that wrapped her snuggly into my chest, augmenting my core as we moved together through space. In that five-day visit, Nanjing was blanketed in snow and the city was still festive in the wake of Chinese New Year. I remember wide boulevards, a government building, thumbprints and the red stamps of paperwork, and a small van that shuttled us to our required appointments. I also remember a private room in a restaurant where we arrived for a celebratory dinner hosted by the uncle of a Chinese friend. The meal never came: we had to leave before we got started because while seating ourselves both girls dissolved in tears, inconsolable as a shared unit, fighting desperately within the finite borders of my lap, staking out their territory in our new geography. The rest was all hotel room with landmarks scattered across a carpeted floor: makeshift cribs, stacking cups, board books, blankets, and enclosures of pillows. When the strings of holiday lights switched on beyond our windows, festooning Nanjing’s tree-lined streets, our own city quieted as the warm softness of pyjamaed children yielded to sleep.

Jason and I are what some people call "China Hands." We speak Chinese, we've lived here before, we follow the trends, we're "China Watchers." Yet we're still, to this day, constantly on our toes. Things surprise us. On the way to our admissions appointment at the Nanjing International School the cab driver insisted on pulling over and getting gas. We groaned—we were late and would now be later. Something about this felt predictable and we felt "had": of course the driver didn't tell us we would have a delay in his vehicle when he accepted our fare. To add to our feeling of being put out, the female attendant at the service station opened the cab door and asked us to all pile out, for safety reasons, while she filled the tanks. But our mood changed when she popped the hood with her white gloved hands and attached lines to a small tank embedded in the engine: natural gas! We clustered around and Jason and I oohhed and ahhhed, crooning to the appreciative driver: "How modern! How environmentally friendly!" Our daughters watched us and this exchange as intently as they studied the cylinders and cables that originally had captivated our gaze.

Settled back into the cab, the driver asked us where we are from and nodded when we replied, "We're Americans." "Americans are good," he responded and gave us a thumb’s up as I braced myself for the expected litany of reasons he might recite, "Americans are all rich," "Americans have a higher quality of life." But he surprised me with this, "Americans treat other people really well. In America you value human rights, and this is a good thing." Alright, I thought. Add that to my list of firsts in China.

Everywhere we are students, I always remember this when I return to China, am hit over the head with it really. But this time I am increasingly aware of my role as teacher as my daughters seek me out as guide and interpreter. Zhou Zhou, still jet-lagged, wakes early in the morning and slides into bed next to me, tugging me awake, “Momma, let’s go for a walk in China, just you and me, before breakfast!” In the morning haze she pets dogs and chirps at birds and says “Ni hao” to everyone who will meet her gaze. She is determined to be fluent in Mandarin as quickly as possible, and she wants me to quantify this expectation of hers in some kind of tangible timeline. "Momma, how long will it take me until I can really speak Chinese?", "Momma, when did you start to learn Chinese?" She demands simultaneous translation and crash courses in functional Chinese nearly everywhere we go: “Momma, what is that lady saying to her son?” “Momma, how do I ask for cold water? How do I ask for chopsticks?” “Momma, how do I say ‘Excuse me’?”

Fei Fei, shyer than her sister and more willing to relinquish her desire for things like chopsticks in favor of protecting her own interior equanimity, is less interested in acquiring the tools for engaging with strangers. But she is still culturally and linguistically curious and eager to be included. Her questions are more about comprehending the human exchanges she is observing than engaging new people directly: "Momma, what did that man say to you?" "Momma, why were you and Daddy laughing?" I notice her studying me for cultural cues rather than asking me directly. At lunch, her head bent over a steaming bowl of soup noodles, she inclines her chin slightly in my direction as her eyes focus on my spoon and chopsticks, her hands and posture mimicking my motions. I find myself self-conscious under this gaze: there really isn't a right or wrong way to catch slippery long noodles in broth and bring them to one's mouth. You either succeed or you don't, and you sometimes make a mess trying.

She wants to succeed. Sometimes her intensity feels like it's a matter of survival. Riding with me and ZZ in the back of a seatbelt-less cab, she will suddenly lean across my lap and shout at her sister, “Zhou Zhou, you have to sit BACK or you might bonk your head!” After disembarking from the cab, she’ll yell at her sister again as we weave our way on a crowded sidewalk: “Zhou Zhou, you have to look at your feet when you walk, not look at the people around you. You almost stepped on a piece of glass!” Yesterday, walking back from the metro to our new home I encountered a friend who is in town and we chatted as we approached the university. My friend parted from us at her hotel and as soon as she was out of earshot Fei Fei began to yell at me, quite uncharacteristically. "Momma, you have to watch where you are walking!!! Do you realize you were almost hit by a car??!!! You were so busy looking at the person you were talking to you weren't looking at the cars. Don't you know that when you're in China you have to look at the cars when you're talking and not the person you are talking to???!!!!" I think this is the most I ever heard her say in one breath. She looked visibly shaken, her fear channeled into an intense anger that was both stunning and humbling, stopping me in my tracks. My first response in my head was, "I was not almost hit by a car, Fei Fei just doesn’t know how to dance in traffic" but I didn't say this — her genuine fear gave me pause. I just looked into her wide-awake face, proud of her alertness and her engagement, moved that she views herself capable of keeping us safe. We walked the rest of the way home hand-in-hand as I made a conscious decision to slow down, to amble, to hold her hand actively without clutching too tightly, to channel confidence and calm through our shared fingers and palms.

Today is Sunday: Day four in our new apartment. Yesterday Fei Fei requested a day to go nowhere at all, to settle in her new room, in our new space, to see no one but the beloved and familiar. She and her sister dart back and forth into one another’s rooms — they have never before each had their own bedroom — and as I raise my head from my writing I realize that this carpeted space also bears signs of our family’s changing geography. I steer around landmarks on my way to switch loads in our stacked washer and dryer that hides in a hall closet. The girls have moved the dining room chairs into the hallway and they are playing “Ikea”, taking their stuffed bears and bunnies and squirrels on shopping tours through their showcased rooms, letting them choose new chairs and bedding and lamps for their nesting. They have set up their new desk lamps on their own — purchased yesterday during a three-hour outing to the local Ikea— and their library books from their new school sit neatly on their nightstands. They’ve made their beds on their own, and on the countertop of their shared bathroom is a neat line of amenities they have acquired during their long summer of travels that fit in some shared category of their own cognition: a half-empty bottle of sunscreen, two unopened packages of shower caps, embroidery thread for making friendship bracelets, a Fuji water bottle labeled “Zhou Zhou” in permanent marker, two homemade paper dolls sitting on either side of their toothbrushes, and a small broken shell collected from a beach in Encinitas. In our common living area the city looms large beyond our floor-to-ceiling windows, skyscrapers and boulevards seven stories down, and in the near-distance I see Purple Mountain, where Jason is hiking. He calls to report that the views from the top are spectacular. I tell him I want us to go out to dinner and eat really good Chinese food.

But I’m not sure I’ll be able to get the girls to sign on to this plan. I did, after all, promise them a day of shelter. But it’s worth a try, and I suggest that our dinner might include dumplings if they are up for a “walk in China.” They are reluctant at first, “Will we have to walk far?” and then change their tune with their sudden shared idea, “Can we bring our animals with us??!!!” I agree to dine with a certain sub-segment of their menagerie and they scramble about the apartment collecting: dogs with movable ears and tails that they have created today out of cardboard from IKEA boxes, plastic bags turned tiny rain coats, and ribbons that double as leashes. Their desire to share their new world propels them out of their shelters. They have so very much to show their pups, so very much to teach their young and captive charges.