Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Check Me Out.

I've had a lot of people tell me that I should write a book based on the things that we've experienced. I think there's great material in our lives--I don't believe that the talent exists to convert that to publication. I do wish I had more time, however, to be more intentional about some of the writing, I've done. When I've been able to be reflective and purposeful about what I wanted to say, I think what I've written has been much better.

Anywho...I regularly read a blog called The Women's Colony and that's when I realize I'm not ready to really write. It's funny, irreverent, sometimes too liberal, but always entertaining and thought provoking. When you visit Mrs. G's site, make your first stop "Origin Myth." It's near the top on the right and it's hilarious--and oh-so-true. Then, visit the Passport room where our family was profiled as part of their "wild people who don't live near home anymore" posts. I think there are some really good writers over there, so it's fun to be included, even if just for a Q-n-A, in their company. Take some time to glance through the different rooms and don't feel too guilty if the Cabana becomes one your new favorite time-wasters...seriously.

Monday, September 28, 2009

My Response to the Ayi Post.

Some people asked what I posted in reply to the previous post about ayis. In my defense (or to my credit), I think I was very restrained. It is a very public forum and around here a small community in terms of talk. I do feel like I represent the school I work for--unattached and I would have been much more direct about the TONE and the sense of ENTITLEMENT and SNARKINESS and...well, you know.

I am sorry, but I simply do not understand the tone of this. You are upset because ayis want more money--in a job situation where families dismiss ayis for all sorts of reasons not at all related to job performance, where families leave, often on short notice, leaving ayis without work, where job security can be neglible? You are upset because an ayi does not want to work on a Saturday--an ayi that may have her own family to raise and care for? You are upset because an ayi, who has learned marketable skills, takes them and advertises herself as a skilled worker to better her economic condition? What constitutes "stealing"? If I need an ayi and I find one that matches my qualifications, I'm not supposed to hire her if she already has a job? How many of us would apply any of these parameters to jobs that we or our spouses have?

Yes, people often pay too much for services. Yes, there is job-hopping amongst ayis. Yes, as an employer I believe I have the right to have what I want in terms of schedules and duties, etc. I wonder what they think, though, when they work for families where a wife/mother does not have a job and the ayi spends more time at that home than she does with her own family. When they see our material things and our lives and what many of them go home to.

Often, my Western idea of loyalty is that--Western. I found that African had a very different definition of loyalty when we lived in Tanzania. We would call it opportunistic, to the point of leaving jobs, or sometimes stealing--getting what they could at that time, even if it meant trouble later. It was a cultural and economic necessity of their lives. We are lucky to live in a country with "help" but when I read about people wanting to know how little time they HAVE to give their ayis off at majorChinese holidays, when I read or hear about ayis working 60 hours a week, when I know how most of us spend the equivalent of their monthly salary on our recreational or social activities on a regular basis, then I have to wonder.

I know a number of people who have had their ayis for more than 5 years. I know families who set aside money to help their ayis with tuition or health expenses. I know families who visit their ayis at home and send gifts for their children and families. I know families who talk to their ayis about the best way to accomplish something so that the ayi feels validated. We brought an interpreter in twice last year so that our ayi could talk to us about the things that troubled her. She was so suprised and pleased that she could tell us what was hard for her and have us make some changes that helped her--and us in the long run.

Of course there are challenges and trials. I'm sorry the tone of this post paints a large group of people with a very negative tone.

One person agreed with me. One person (so far) posted this:

I agree with your point of view or let say experience 101 %. I have teh same problem. it takes a lot of energy to teach them the way we clean our house especially when they cannot speak a word of english.

In my MOST SNARKIEST moment, it occurs to me that the above poster could use a few English lessons herself. sigh. I guess this is the negative crap you hear about ex-pats and living. How dare people live in a country, get a middle-school education and not speak a word of English?! Really. The nerve of 1.3 billion people.

Living in Luxury with Househelp.

I have long since learned not to comment on having a housekeeper. It is a luxury, I freely admit, a luxury that most anyone would want. What was surprisingly difficult to learn was that it's a lot more work to have someone in your house than you might think--obviously not more work than doing the work yourself, don't get me wrong. But it is a challenge. It takes a LOT of time to train someone to the way you like things done--it's not an automatic assumption that raw chicken and apples shouldn't be cut with the same knife, or that toilet paper is not the best thing to use to clean a toilet--and when the "right" way is a way that is not something they experience or believe or do in their own culture or lives, it does take time to get that settled. Even if the ayi has been working for other Western families before.
If your ayi cooks Western foods (as ours does--I had tons of recipes translated into Chinese), she is never cooking food that she herself eats. You think you're coming home to a delicious meal, only to find out that an ingredient was substituted, or she forgot that 30 minutes is too long to cook pasta, or 1/2 cup of milk doesn't cut it when 2 cups were needed. We have a great ayi, but sitting down to dinner can be a surprise once in awhile.

Virtually all ayis clean like fiends--seriously, you can do surgery on my floors and that's with 3 kids and 2 pets! But when things get put can be a challenge to locate them. Where would Xiao think was a logical place for that permission slip? Most of them are very good at laundry, too--although laundry often gets put away in different people's drawers. Every couple weeks one of the boys has NO socks or underwear. Mark's belt goes missing for several days. Where is that t-shirt? It all turns up--eventually.

Many ayis are hired to do primary child-care. Raising Chinese children is VASTLY different than raising an American/British/Australian, etc. child. Imagine trying to communicate all of that without speaking Chinese.

My point being (and I'm not whining) is that you give up a lot of control in many ways, and (unlike what I thought initially) I can't ever really give up monitoring things. But still, I pay an honest wage for an honest day's work. Our ayi works from 10-6 Monday through Friday. She shops for all household products and vegetables. She cooks dinner every night. She takes care of the dog walking. She cleans and does laundry and calls for repairs when needed. She is available for 2 nights a month and 4 hours on a weekend to work without getting paid extra (which we hardly ever use). She has a high school daughter and a 3 year old and a husband. She earns about $300 per month. Most ayis working for families with kids have a Saturday as an automatic day and are on call at anytime. She gets the days off per Chinese law and the days off when we aren't working. She does have to work in the summer to take care of the pets.

So I found the following post on the local e-group to be so bitchy and snarky. There is a problem with wage escalation, with ayis pitting families against each other and job-hopping. Those who have been here longer don't like newcomers who don't know the going rate and pay too much.

I think about what I would be doing in the States. I think about what I spend $300 on in a month (my ayi's salary). I think about my house, my possessions, my car, my vacations, and wonder what Xiao and other ayis think. I think about stay-at-home wives who have 2 ayis. I hope I don't run into this woman. But I hope she does respond to what I posted about her note in the e-group! I'll leave it to you to judge...
I have been in Beijing many years and I noticed the Ayis are getting spoiled by the day. They are always asking for raises and refusing to work on Saturdays. I work full time, I have very little time overlaping with the Ayi during week days. I want my Ayi to work Saturdays so we could go over some issues... They will leave you whenever they hear an offer that's 100 or
200 RMB more than you are paying. When new family arrives and looks for Ayi, it becomes
an oportunity for all of them (including the ones who are currently employed) to take the job. They always ask you: "How much you are willing to pay?" Normally the new family will offer at leat at the mid level to the higher end. Sure enough, the ones at the lower end will seize the
opportunity and jump ships leaving the current employer hanging. It is a bad cycle,the Ayis are always wating for the next offer. The wages keeps going up, they could leave anytime
unless you are wiiling to keep up with their greed. I am tired of training them, teaching them my great cooking skills. Instead of being grateful, they brag to other new familys about the dishes they can make (learned from me) and negotiate for a higher pay. Of course, the
new family is never told that they are actually taking an Ayi from someone else. My last Ayi left me to work with another family a block from my house.

Right now, I am on my 3rd Ayi, she only works 3 days for me. She does only cleaning for me and insists on leaving at 6:00pm. I cook when time permits, she helps prep sometimes. Fine, no more free cooking lessons from the Master Chef here!

I don't know how to stop this bad cycle! I know all of us want to have a good domestic
helper and are willing to compensate them well for their work. But by constantly rasing the wages only promotes the greed, and unwillinness to settle among them.

Does anyone has a good solution to better screen the Ayis? And also to make sure that we are not stealing someone else's Ayi!!!

PS...all spelling errors in the italicized portion are the author's, not mine. I refuse to accept responsibility for the paragraphing and spacing, too. I'm just grateful to have Blogger in China (she chants over and over as she vainly tries to insert spaces).

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Hillmans at Play.

Cameron played a little rugby in Tanzania. He's never been one for team sports: a little soccer when he was in kindergarden, a little baseball, but his heart was never really into it. He's a great athlete when it comes to individual non-ball activities--hiking, skiing, etc. but not much for team sports. We were surprised when he announced that he was going to play rugby this fall instead of auditioning for the play. A decent role in the play was a pretty sure thing--a role on a team sport, not so much.

We are so proud of him! He plays on a 2nd string JV team, which is where a kid playing team sports for the first time really should be. He has attended every practice, run 3 miles a week on his own, and sat through a weekend rugby tourney in his team suit (as in tie and coat) without playing. We were disappointed that the games yesterday were cancelled due to the terrible air quality (at a certain level all outdoor aerobic activities have to be cancelled) and he didn't have a chance to play. It's another one of those things that make you proud of your child--willing to take a risk to try something new at a period of time in his life that would probably considered relatively "late" sports-wise. We pray that he has inherited his father's speed and agility--he certainly has inherited his father's build, and he's noticeably slighter than many of the other players.

Really, rugby is a fantastic game to watch. If you ever get the chance, I highly recommend it. Like hockey, there's TONS of action--hits, tackles, pileups. Like hockey, the clock almost never stops. People assume that it's wild and brutal, but really it's not. Unlike American football, the focus is not on the tackling and hitting. It's much more fun to watch, I think, than football. It's no wonder that it's so popular around the world.
Sometimes I think America needs to get up and get interested in other sports that are (gasp) not football and basketball and baseball. Except for cricket. There's just no explaining that game.

Our elementary school has the BEST phy. ed. program. Brooke and Tim run the most dyanamic and amazing programs--kids clamor to be a part of them. One of the most popular is Jedi Jugglers--kids progress through juggling balls, rings, batons (including fire batons) to a spot on the Jedi Council of jugglers and a big all school show in the spring.

The other very popular event is Great Wall Runners. Kids show up twice a week after school to run laps. Prizes are awarded at the end for kids who reach marathon status (50 km) and ultramarathon status (70 km). Kids run on their own as well and have the opportunity to rack up a few kms during recess.

Ava was nervous about commiting but she's gone once a week all fall, running 6-7 laps each time. It must have paid off, because that hard work (and natural talent) earned her a medal. Look closely--it's GOLD. Ava was the first girl to cross the finish line in her 2K race. Good on ya, Ava!

Wild Noah is off to a great year. Wild Noah is NOT a risk-taker. Yes, I know I can record the events of his life in the scars on his body (boils, tree falls, barbed wire) but he prefers a life that is orderly and predictable and risk-free. Last year he had a hard time settling in--when he made friends, on e of his closest friends was an outstanding athlete and juggler, his place well-fixed at school. Noah definitely saw his place as behind him. When Joe moved to Guam over the summer, Noah saw the opportunity to move into his "spot". He's been running about 10 miles a week the last month. That amount of exercise, plus a very finicky eater, makes for a very skinny kid.
It also makes for a very fast kid. He definitely has his father's genes for speed! He won 2nd place in the 5th grade boys' race, running 4K.

Ho Sun, Ian, Jonathon, and Noah are all in 5th grade and all live next door to each other. They all also played basketball together and have a pretty good time hanging out.
Noah has been very passionate about soccer. This year, he and Ian started playing Little League World Series on Wii and are now lugging bats and gloves everywhere they go. All of my kids have always looked for a "best" friend and Noah has been lucky enough to find one wherever he's lived.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Happy PRC Day

October 1 is National Day in China and this year marks the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China. To say it's a big deal would be putting is oh-so-mildly. Approximately 1.5 million people attended President Obama's inauguration. Approximately 20 million people LIVE in Beijing. I'm pretty sure that of the 1.5 billion people that live in China....well, a WHOLE BUNCH of them are coming to town.

The area around Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City has been severely restricted for weeks. Weekends have been devoted to smaller practices, while last Friday the whole city area was basically shut down from Friday afternoon through Saturday afternoon for parade practice. We had to release students and teachers early that day who lived in the city so they could get home before the roads closed. People who live in those areas have been asked to leave for the national week holiday.
When we see images from China, we often see military images and there is definitely going to be some amazing weaponry on display. For some reason, our news cuts away, though, before the spectacular floats and performances that I suspect would put the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade to shame. Think Olympic in the magnitude and their sense of presentation and perfection. It will be jaw-dropping.

Not that we'll be there to see it. Two weeks ago, when we were at the Forbidden City, the street in front was shut for parade practice and the crowds were insane. Chinese New Year was insane. This will be...well, the most insanest. I imagine that if I went down Wednesday after school with my sleeping bag and thermos of tea, I might finagle something quasi-close to the street. It will be virtually impossible to get in and out of the area. Security is, to say the least, is very high-priority for an event of this size, and not just around Beijing. Areas outside of Beijing have increased security as well, making the whole sleep-on-the-street thing probably impossible anyway. I will have pictures, though, after the event, and, suffice it say, you'll be ooohing and aaahing at the beauty of the Chinese people and culture. Us? We'll catch all the action on the Chinese TV stations--if the Olympics are any indication, we'll be able to watch it for several months!

Of course, this is a big holiday so everywhere will be more crowded. We are heading to Xi'an to visit the terra-cotta soldiers and then on to Pingyao, a UNESCO World Heritage site which has some of the best-preserved ancient city walls of this size (the city within the walls is restricted to foot and bike traffic only). Cameron visited there last year with his class and highly recommended it. I'm embarrassed to admit it will be our first trip out of Beijing since we moved here!

Monday, September 14, 2009

A Little Light Reading.

Cameron is reading Angela's Ashes for English. He originally picked another book because he didn't know anything about any of his choices. I encouraged him to read AA--I think it's overwhelming in its portrayal of the author's life. I think it is a book that can at once both open the reader's eyes to the horrors of Irish poverty and soar with the beautiful language he uses to convey the joy and despair of that life. It has so many of the qualities of excellent fiction while retaining the non-fiction memoir characteristics as well.

He is learning how to annotate literature which involves taking a passage from a novel and examining it from different perspectives. He uses the "track changes" feature to highlight and then comment on an aspect of that passage. He gives his own insights and makes his own connections, but he does have to do some "research" to support or confirm his observations. He asked me if there was a Depression similar to that in the US in Ireland at that time, or were there other reasons for the family's poverty? He also wanted to know when WWII started to see if there might be some connections to the life that he was reading about. This is a sample of his beginning with this passage. I wasn't able to easily copy in his comments and they are still pretty sketchy so they wouldn't be very helpful at this point.

(Clues to setting Imagery Other comments Literary techniques)

Clothes never dried: tweedand woolen coats housed living things, sometimes mysterious vegetations. In pubs, steam rose from damp bodies and garments to be inhaled with cigarette and pipe smoke laced with the stale fumes of spilled stout and whiskeyand tinged with the odor of piss wafting in from the outdoor jakes where many a man puked up his week’s wages.

The rain drove us into the church—our refuge,
our only dry place. At Mass, Benediction, novenas, we huddled in great damp clumps, dozing through priest drone, while steam rose again from our clothes to mingle with the sweetness of incense, flowers, and candles.

Limerick gained a reputation for piety, but we knew it was only the rain.

I like this assignment. I like the way he's being asked to look at a variety of aspects of a novel--from the author's craft to language choice to the influences that time and place have on a piec of
work. I like the way it's presented--he doesn't have to do research or look outside of the text, but in order to meet the requirements he has to in order to have the expected level of depth of thought and analysis. The independent nature of the assignment puts that as his responsibility, rather than a checklist or worksheet or even a list of something.

Mostly, though, I really like the critical approach to reading. From the very begining years ISB takes a very comprehensive approach to reading. It's more than fluency and comprehension--students work on reading a variety of genres and do critical analysis and deeper level skills at an early age--and in a way that continually keeps kids fired for reading. To do this for books like "Of Mice and Men" and "Angela's Ashes" requires a solid understanding of what comprises literature. Cameron has always been a very gifted reader, but it has been challenging for him to work with a book in this way. I think there's a part of him that wishes he could just read (and I remind him he can do that any ol' time he wants) but I think he's learning to appreciate books on a different way. Learning how to read like that was a great turning point in my reading career--as a gifted reader as a child, I devoured books, but all the learning about themes, imagery, context, etc. made books even more irresistable!

And, as long as we're on reading, LUCY, thank you for your Hunger Games post. Cameron enjoyed the book and read your post and all the comments. He asked me what I thought you meant when you commented about people reading only for entertainment without considering the moral or ethical aspects which led to a short but insightful discussion about the power of literature and the beauty of interpretation. He plays his cards close to his chest, so I love those moments when he's willing to share his opinions or ideas. so THANKS!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Hooray! Blue Skies! Fresh Air! Green Stuff!

Under the spreading chestnut tree....

Cappucino, anyone?

Peter and Sally on a camping date...carefully chaperoned by Ava and Bella.

9th grade tree monkeys.
Also known as Zach and Cam.

Wishing for s'mores...
Ian and Noah kept hoping til the sun went time!

An unexpected breakfast guest.

Delicious cherries--especially this winter when they'll be dipped in sugar glaze!

What is looks like when it's NOT smoggy!

ANYTHING's better than THIS!

Bon Appetit

For those who thought that sesame chicken, stir-fry, and egg rolls constituted Chinese food....or who picture themselves ducking into a local cafe for a quick bite... least you can safely say you got good value for your money. You get ALL of the chicken except for the feathers!

Friday, September 04, 2009

Anarchy, 2nd Grade Style.

Today the 2nd graders started their social studies unit on government. Our school follow the "first 6 weeks" program where they kids spend a significant amount of time and focus at the beginning of the year to develop a culture, learn and practice social skills, build relationships, explore and create their class rules, and generally begin to learn what it means to be a community. It sounds a bit touchy feely, but it is really important. If teachers don't spend the time, the learning doesn't go well without the understandings and structures that underpin the actual academics. The process really does help students get into the flow and understand the rules and expectations for their class.

Which is why today's lesson was so funny. Today the students came in and read a note on their smartboards that the teachers were going to watch, not lead, the morning meeting time. The students were to "do" morning meeting, then do their silent reading. Teacher videotaped and were only allowed to give noncommittal responses to questions, such as "Well, what do you think?" or "That's an interesting idea." I peeked into Ava's room. There she stood, microphone in hand, leading the morning greeting and then moving the group into the morning game. Another class finished their game and moved on to silent reading, very orderly. Another class did great until the morning game, at which point they seemed to lose track of time and continued playing the game until the teacher rejoined the group and took charge.

One class, however...well, let's just say there's a reason why we have the rules and procedures that we do. A few students stood at the teacher's desk, discussing whether or not to use the name sticks to decide who would be the leader. Over in the corner a few quiet ones abandoned the process and were curled up reading their books. Near the window three students argued over who was going to use the microphone to get everyone's attention. There was a lot of noise, a lot of action, and....well, that was about it.

Forty-five minutes is a loooooong time for 7 year olds to manage themselves. The discussions about the importance of rules and government in order to maintain order and accomplish tasks, to guide and protect people, etc. would have been equally entertaining, I'm sure. In truth, I actually expected more of the last class, and I was surprised at how well so many of the classes were able to go through their routine without arguing or running to their teachers. They were generally cooperative and orderly!

Which doesn't explain why I can't leave my THREE children alone for 15 minutes without getting a tattletale phone call. But I suppose that's a whole 'nother topic!

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Things I've Learned from Spam

*Having a big organ is the most important thing of all.
(this is, I think, for Mark. Or church musicians).

*My life is changed--I just won $100.

*Miranda is upset because she's emailed us nude pics of herself and we're ignoring her.

*Viagra now comes in easy-to-chew soft tabs. For those with denture problems, maybe.

*I apparently have a PLAN B.

*I have GOT to see these pics of Jennifer Aniston.

*The vacation of my dreams is just waiting for me.

*The D Agency wants to meet me.

*One's social status grows in proportion to the size of one's member (that's for Mark again.)

*There's a problem with my order.

*I could be making $10,000 per month.

*Dinner at the Olive Garden is on them.

*A cool watch automatically means big respect.

*I must stop. Immediately.