Monday, March 29, 2010

Gweilo Road Trip, prt. III

Culture, Kicking and Screaming (and Bitching and Pinching and Peeing)

After breakfast, we head back to the room, scrub the grease and pancake syrup off our hands and fingers, pick brie cheese out of our hair (don’t ask), brush our teeth, and head out the door. 

All morning, Ellen and I have been debating about how to spend the day.  We know we need to be in Suzhou, an hour train-ride away, at five to have dinner with friends we met while in Vietnam.  So our time in Shanghai, arguably one of the most interesting cities in Europe, is limited. 

One of my colleagues who travelled a lot with her kids when they were younger once listed to me all the things she’d done with them—all the UNESCO sites, all the Buddhist temples, all the cultural events and folk dance performances and on and on.  “And when I ask them now about what they remember from Thailand?” she said.  “Or Bali, or China?  You know what they say?”

I shook my head. 

She rolled her eyes.  “’The beach.’”

So there you have it. 

All through Vietnam, all through Yangshuo and Ping’an, we remember this story and plan accordingly:  every time we visit a moss covered temple, we spend some time hiking in the mountains.  Every hour we traipse through a museum, we spend an equivalent hour letting he kids run around in a park going “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!”

In Shanghai, though, for some reason, we forget this.  The Shanghai aquarium, with its sharks and stingrays and a special exhibit on the world’s most deadliest fish, is just across the river from our hotel.  The other option we consider is the Yuyuan Garden, one of Shanghai’s most famous classical gardens, built in 1577 by some government official who dedicated his life to boring the crap out of children.  Years ago, I’d spent several blissful hours there, writing in my journal and soaking in the astounding lotus gardens, the small temples, and the silence.

Wisely noting, as only folks who’ve now passed the ten-year mark in parenting can, how much children love quiet contemplation and journaling, Ellen and I decide that the best way to spend our one day in Shanghai is to stroll down the Bund admiring the architecture, before wandering toward Yuyuan where we can spend several quiet hours screaming at our children for behaving like (gasp!) children.

Don’t get me wrong.  The Bund is great, even just prior to the opening of the 2010 world expo that Shanghai is hosting, when it’s torn up by road crews retooling all the walkways with new paving stones.  It’s just not designed to entertain a 9-, a 6- and a 3-year-old, particularly on a day when sandstorms are blowing in from the deserts west of Beijing and the six-year-old woke up at 6:35 in the morning—two events which are certain to register on the weather satellites circling the globe. 

We get to the garden and discover that in order to enter you have to traverse the world’s biggest outdoor souvenir mall.  There’s no end of things to buy, most of it dangerously unkitchy:  wood carvings, designs cut into lace-thin paper, jade figurines.  We’re able to avoid most of it, though I do talk Ellen into letting an clever-looking young man clip three papers silhouettes of the children.  As he does so, he studies their features earnestly, one at a time, before producing three cut-outs:  one largish, with thick hair, one medium-sized with long hair and bangs, and one tiny, with crazy hair poking in every direction.  All three have a noticeably Asian slant to their eyes.  We love them.

The gardens are just as beautiful as I remember them:  white stucco walls topped with slanted shingles; red temples and living quarters supporting ornate roofs and fancy dragons; lotus ponds and willow trees and small, secluded benches overlooking koi ponds.  

I try to let Ellen wander alone as much as I can, shepherding the kids from place to the place, trying to keep a lid on them by taking silly pictures of them, by pointing out the carved dragons adorning the buildings, but letting them wander off by themselves every so often to explore hidden corners of the maze-like gardens. 

For a while, they are fine.  Rambunctious, yes.  Giggly, yes.  But within the boundaries of acceptable behavior.  The further we get into the garden, though, the more it’s like they’re springs, being wound tighter and tighter:  the bursts of laughter get louder, the moments of horse-play get rougher. 

“You guys!” I warn, once, twice, then ten times.  “You need to keep it quiet.  There are other people around.  They’re trying to enjoy this place too.”

I gesture toward a crowd of tourists following a Japanese guide with a small green flag and a megaphone hooked up to a loud speaker around her waist.  Even I, never having spoken a word of Japanese, can tell that her voice is hopelessly garbled by the volume having been cranked up to “10.” 

One of the great mysteries of this year is whether Ellen’s and my insistence that the kids behave in public is for the good of the public, the good of the kids, or our own piece of mind. I’d like to think it’s the first one, or at worst, the second.  Certainly, living in a smallish flat with people over, under, and beside us has puts some pressure on us to keep the kids quieter, though at times I think our hollering to keep them quiet is louder than their lack of quietness. 

And there are times I wonder, particularly when I look around and see Chinese kids running around and around in hotel lobbies, or English kids climbing on furniture in restaurants, if maybe we worry a bit too much about our kids acting out, if we shouldn’t just let them be kids a bit more. 

Often, when we’ve told Will and Lucy 600 times not to run around the nunnery and notto scream at the top of their lungs when they’re laughing in a restaurant, Ellen will say, “I just don’t remember Brian and me behaving like this.”

Then she’ll pause for a moment and say, “But of course, we didn’t have a Lucy with us.”

The thing is, I can remember behaving like that when I was a kid.  Oh, sure, I may have listened to my mother more than Will and Lucy listen to me—or maybe not—but I had all this energy, all this momentum.  For a few years when I was a toddler, my dad was a pastor at a small Lutheran church in Tomahawk, Wisconsin.  The parsonage was right on the church property, and on Sunday afternoons I’d go out in the yard, get on the play set, and swing so hard I’d lift the legs right out of the ground.  Word has it, there are still old folks at that church who, when they talk to my father even today, will ask if I still like to run around screaming like an idiot.

When we visited with our friend Hilary and her family in Suzhou the next day, she commented on how gentle the Chinese were with their children. 

“I’ve been here 18 months,” she said, “and I’ve never—never once—seen one of them yell at their kids.”

Part of this, of course, is simply the one child rule:  if you’re only allowed to have one kid, you’re going to shower that kid with as much affection as you can.  Some university professors I’ve met complain that mainland kids are spoiled, though in my limited interactions with them, I’ve never had that impression.  But of course, I’ve never given one of them a ‘C.’

Anyhow, I wish I’d spoken to Hillary sooner, like on Saturday, when we are at the Yuyuan Gardens, because after nearly two hours of saying, “Guys, please be quiet,” and “Guys, you need to listen,” and “Guys, there are other people around you!  Please be careful,” there is one point when, just before lunch, Will and Lucy sprint ahead of me, laughing and giggling in a particularly quiet garden surrounding a pond where I really light into them.  I don’t shout, mind you, but I most certainly do intrude on their personal space, and very certainly do give them fodder for therapy sessions for years to come.

And as I do so, the small trickle of Chinese tourists passing by the spot where we are standing, gaze at us in quiet, confused wonder.


We do a better job the next day at Suzhou.  Chances are, if you’ve never been to China, you’ve never heard of Suzhou, the “Venice of the East,” as some guy who’s been dead for a long, long, long time, once called it.  It certainly is gorgeous.  One and two-story white walled buildings with black tiled roofs cover an area of four or five acres.  Wide, stone-lined canals run along the sides and cut through the village at irregular intervals.  Stone bridges—some arched, some not—add to the scene, as do wood-trimmed tea houses lining the banks of the canal, and, on the weekend we were there anyways, couples in circa 1920s vintage Chinese clothing getting their pictures taken by professional photographers.  The stone streets themselves are the cleanest I’ve ever seen, looking like they’ve just been swept.  And everything’s all the more beautiful because the trees are just starting to bloom in Suzhou, giving everything a dusting of bright, almost fluorescent, green. 

Will and Lucy are dazzled.

“This is the best place we’ve ever been,” Lucy says.  “I promise I’ll never be naughty again!”

Will nods.  “I’m—“ and he stops, searching for a word.

“Charmed?” I suggest. 

He grins.  “Yes.  Charmed.  Of course.  Just the word I was looking for.  Thanks ever so much, father dear.”

At which point Jamie chimes in with “I’m not pooing!” so we hustle him off to a public toilet. 

Okay, so not really (except for the poo part), but Will and Lucy are much better in Suzhou, mainly because they’re with Jacob and Sydney, friends they’d made while we were traveling through Vietnam back in December.  Doron, Jacob’s and Sydney’s father, says that the key to traveling with kids is to always have friends available, be it another family you’re traveling with, folks you meet along the way, or some local kid you pay five dollars to play badminton with your son while you take a nap.

And it’s true that that during the two evenings and one day we spend with our friends, Will and Lucy are pretty much perfect.  Sure, they still run.  Sure, they still holler.  But somehow, when they’re with two other kids, it’s not so frenzied, so insular, so like a pair of bees in a coffee can going after each other out of sheer frustration.  We spend much of our time in Suzhou at the Humble Administrator’s Garden—easily an equal to Yuyuan in terms of beauty—and Will and Lucy and Jacob and Sydney spend much of that time chasing each other through rock formations, teasing the opposite sex, and poking each other with sharp sticks—but somehow, it all works. 

Late in the afternoon, Hilary either volunteers or allows herself to be talked into taking all four of the older kids back to their flat for ice cream and bike riding and other all-American (despite their Canadian passports) flag-waving type amusements.  Meanwhile, Doron takes me, Ellen, and Jamie on a further wander, ending in a late afternoon tea along the river accompanied by sun-dried sea-salt plums and an assortment of other tasty, raisin-ish fruits. 

We have trouble getting a taxi back to the flat, but eventually we arrive to find that Lucy apparently forgot how to ride a bike and Will bumped his head against some monkey bars and spent part of the afternoon crying.  But then we head out to dinner at a Korean restaurant for barbeque and kimchi pancakes, and suddenly everything is right in the world again.  

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