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).


  1. Wow, C. I am truly humbled that you mentioned and fulfilled my request. You've exceeded my expectations, not only accounting for your settling in, but your fellow "accompanying spouses'" as well. It's hard to imagine you having culture shock. I take for granted that you could feel at home anywhere in China, but realize now that all China is not the same, just as all America is not the same. I cling to San Francisco, indeed to the Mission District, because I am afraid of fitting in or branching out elsewhere. And yet I so admire you! This is your calling and the books you will write as a result of your uprooting and settling down in this new chapter of China will bare the proof. Meanwhile, my friend suggested a cool meditation to practice today. Instead of Let Go, Let God, she told me to say "Let God," then inhale, "Let Go," exhale. Try it in your steamy (bacteria free) shower. Love you!

  2. Ditto on the Wow, C. This post is proof that Plumposts is indeed the home of a writer. Dag, you capture cultural and physical dis-and re-location so eloquently. I got a chill with that Fei-Fei writer comment and your response and the way you wrapped the thing up. Arriving back at the beginning yet somewhere new that you've long sought. Keep moving into that city and identity, yo!

  3. I've often wondered who actually READS all those blogs out there in the ether. But I would read yours.