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.


  1. Hello, dear one(s)! I read this so fast, greedily gobbling up the words and precious images of you - especially the girls - navigating new streets, home, world....Your family has it's own important history with this historic city, and the girls are engaging in this old/new place in their perfectly characteristic ways. Can't wait to go back and read more leisurely, now that my need-to-know has been gratified. Thank you for taking the time to post this for all of us. Much love to you and the co-director. Kiss everyone and see you soon, in skypeland!

  2. Every Sunday morning I grab the NY Times Magazine, turn to the last page and begin to read. I always know I'll find some account that in some ways seems so mundane, in others so personal, and still others so universal. Looking into that page I always know I'll see more. That's what this post was like for me. Thank you.

  3. YOYO peeps this is isa!!! i love hearing about UR life in china!!!! i looooove and missssss U guys!!!!!!! kep posting!!! love isa

  4. i meant keep posting!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! love isa!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. Thank you, Colette. I'm digesting all the smells and sights and sounds and colors and curiosities. It's precious to hear how the girls are arriving and returning in their older and wiser skins. And you? I want to hear more about your self conscious or self absorbing settling in. Love love love love

  6. I love the internal and external geography lessons here. The new China. The old Nanjing for your family--with that sweet flashback to the ZZ claim. The new Nanjing of natural gas engines and now the Plutents! I can totally hear ZZ with those insistent, voracious questions, and FF with the quieter but no less culturally curious queries and observations. Another safety first person! I love how you responded to her lecture with compassion and hand-holding, Plum. Keep sharing what you see with your empathetic eye and holding our hands from afar, yo!

  7. Got your email today and am gobbling up your posts--your new home looks both cozy and modern with the couches and table and chairs--and I can see the view--not pollution--yeah!
    Love, MTMom

  8. I love that they can still go to IKEA. But I must ask: Do they serve meatballs and whatnot or do they serve Chinese fare?