Preschool progress 

My 3 year old has been in preschool for about 6 months now and it has been more difficult than I imagined. 

I don’t know if he likes it. He tells me that he doesn’t and he cries every single morning when I drop him off, yet the staff tell me he is happy and very social and he stops crying right after I leave. He excitedly tells me about things at his school, like he will see a bunny or book and tell me his school has that. Sometimes when his dad picks him up, he will ask to stay a little longer. When I ask him why he doesn’t like it, he says it’s because he doesn’t speak English and he gets sick all of time. 

I can’t begin to describe the last 6 months of illness. Someone has been sick every single week. I know that people say kids get sick when they start school, but this kid only ever got sick once in his 3 years before starting even though he’s been to rural China and licks random objects, then he is sick every other week after starting school. I was not prepared for that and can understand why he was miserable since I shared most of his colds. The doctor said that his immune system should adjust after about 6 months so at least there’s that. 

English is tricky. People say that kids pick languages up fast. Fast is relative. When you are watching your child struggle with not being able to communicate, it is painfully slow. After a couple weeks I could tell his English comprehension increased. He would repeat words while watching Sesame Street and start inserting English words in conversation. It seemed so fast, but then never went anywhere. 

My friends told me it takes 2 months. Drop off did get a little easier at the 2 month mark but he still cried. He keeps using more and more English words but he doesn’t actually speak in English sentences. He shuts off when people try to speak to him in English. I thought maybe he’s speaking it at school and just doesn’t want to at home, but that doesn’t seem the case. 

We got his progress report at 6 months and they said he’s doing well – social, exceeds physical milestones – but they have no idea about his language ability. The school doesn’t have much experience with kids learning esl but from the experiences they have, they said it takes about a year. If that’s true, then we have a ways to go. One small hope – he loves to “read” the Very Hungry Catepiller to me in English. I’m impressed that he knows most of the words. That one book is my only gage into his English ability. My guess is that there is a ton going on inside his head that he just isn’t ready to let out yet.

I don’t think it’s ever easy seeing your baby struggle, especially when you are doing something to supposedly make him happy. It makes me wonder if I did the right thing, even if I didn’t have much of a choice. All the ponies and bunnies in the world can’t seem to entice this kids to want to go to preschool. 

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Back to the country for preschool

My husband is originally from a small farming village, despite this, he won’t admit he’s a 农民 (farmer). There is a negative connotation to it, and it’s something that he has worked to overcome. There are many things that I wanted over the years that he said no to because it’s too country (no shabby chic here ). This is why it is ironic that we chose a preschool on a ranch.

I fell in love with my son’s preschool as soon as I saw it. It’s a no tech preschool with old brick buildings on lake with horses. They guarantee kids will go home dirty and tired every day. I was sold. 

I kept waiting for my husband’s reaction though. When we looked at pediatricians, he chose the one with shiny granite and computers just because it looked fancier than the other choice. What would he think of 50 year old buildings and chickens? Well, he has really changed. 

The guy who grew up in the Chinese countryside moved to the big city for college, and an even bigger city for work, then to America only to send his son back to the country! It is kind of hard to explain to our Chinese family. While Kai’s cousin (also 3) goes to the most expensive, fanciest preschool in their part of Qingdao and comes home with English work, Kai is going to learn to grow vegetables and fish. Mostly we just send them pictures of him riding a pony. A 3 year old on a pony makes everything better. 

I don’t want to psychoanalyze my husband too much. He’s either now really confident and fully Americanized or nostalgic for his childhood. Either way, it’s kind of funny to think about. My husband brags about the rustic school even though it is definitely not the same kind of preschool our Chinese friends send their kids. 

I like the idea of our son having similar (but arguably much better) experiences as his father, and I can’t wait to see how my baby grows and gets his hands dirty!

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My Bilingual Baby

I always knew my son would inevitably be bilingual, what surprised me is that neither of the languages is English and the challenges that has presented. My baby boy is three now so he’s still developing his language ability but is quiet conversational and talkative at this point. Somehow or another, he has grown up in America learning to speak Mandarin and Shandonghua.

The fact that my son doesn’t speak my language was kind of alarming. Seriously, how did that happen? Didn’t I read stories to him in English? No, not really. For the most of his babyhood, he was more interested in chewing on the book or flipping through the pages than letting me finish a sentence. I used to take him to story time at the library but that wasn’t enough. Didn’t my family speak English to him? Yes, but they rarely saw him. My friends? Wait, most of our friends speak Chinese; when did that happen? We didn’t not expose him to the world around us, but without being in daycare, his world was mostly our home and we simply don’t speak much English at home.

Not a big deal though, he will learn English when he goes to preschool, right? My first realization that my son doesn’t speak English was at the playground. He was 2 and there was a bigger 2 year old blocking him from going down the slide. The older kid was yelling at him and Kai had no idea what he was saying. Both toddlers ended up frustrated. Upon continued observations, I realized that my outgoing baby boy clams up with English speaking kids. He is very outgoing and talkative with Chinese speaking kids. In fact, he seems to come alive whenever we are in China and everyone speaks his language. This brought up two points – 1. He can quickly discern which languages people speak. 2. Not speaking English might hinder his socialization. It also affects my family. My mother has seemed to use it as another excuse to ignore him, my father gets frustrated and yells at him when he doesn’t understand, and my brother just seems sad he can’t interact as well with his nephew. Most strangers just shrug and say he’s shy when he doesn’t respond.

While it is sad that he doesn’t speak my native language, I’m utterly perplexed that he speaks my husbands. How does a child growing up in America end up speaking Shandonghua? My husband and I speak Mandarin at home. I used to speak English when it was the babies and me, but with Kai speaking to me in Mandarin, I speak it back. My Inlaws don’t speak Mandarin though. For almost half of his 3 years, my Inlaws have lived with us off and on. Apparently their influence is stronger than that of the English world around us. We also regularly video chat with relatives back in China who also only speak Shandonghua. He has not spent much time in China at all, but his language ability seemed to blossom when he first went. Chinese people seem to interact with (strangers’) children more than in the US. Among the Chinese community here, hearing him break out in a dialect is kind of an oddity.

Actually, having him speak Chinese at all is an oddity. Around here, most Chinese kids my sons age speak primarily English. My son’s closest friend is also half Chinese and a couple months younger than him. His baby years were primarily speaking Chinese. Just like Kai, his first words and sentences were in Chinese. His friend actually lived in China for almost a year before he turned 2. Then one day he turned it off and started only speaking English. That seems to happen a lot. A lot of our friends complain about their children refusing to speak Chinese. If our friends are any indication, this preference for Chibese won’t last.
We will wait and see what happens when my Chinese speaking son starts preschool in a couple weeks.

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Let them have cake

My expat friends and I were on a never ending search for good bakeries in China. Whenever we heard about a new one, especially a foreign one, we had to try it. Every time it was disappointing. Even the most expensive and highly touted cakes missed the mark. 

This is to be expected though because China isn’t known for baking and convection ovens and cream aren’t exactly cheap. To give an idea of how bad the cakes are, we recently attended a wedding  in China where the couple had a gorgeous tiered wedding cake from a famous bakery.  My two-year-old, whose favorite word is “cake,” spit it out and left the rest of the slice untouched. 

 To put a spin on things, my Chinese friends in America always try to find good cake in America. They find American cake too sweet and too dense. I can understand that, I’m not a big fan of overly sweet cakes either. At least I thought I understood it.

A Chinese bakery recently opened up here and finally everyone has good Chinese cake. My Chinese friends are extatic and all recent birthday celebrations have included this Chinese cake. Finally, in America where there is easy access to the best ovens and amazing cream and butter and other bakers to learn from, there is lightly sweetened Chinese cake. 

This is where I am lost. This cake is also awful. Everyone seems to love it though. So much so that they are spending insane amounts of money on this horrible cake. 

The cake itself is spongy, yet soggy. It’s like biting into a memory foam mattress that dissolves with water. It also has a bit of a sour taste. To top it off, it has an oily icing that reminds me of eating finger paint. At first I thought the cake had just gone bad since we were at an outside party. Time and again, this cake is so bad that I can’t get it down and have to rinse out my mouth after coming in contact with it. Somehow, Chinese people love it. 

My conclusion, Chinese cake isn’t bad due to limitation of skill or resources, it is bad because it is catered to Chinese tastes. They like their cake so let them have it. I will never try to find a decent bakery in China again. 

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Searching for Floss

Nothing reminds me that I’m in a different country like being unable to find something as basic as dental floss.

I remember looking at my floss while packing my toothbrush and thinking I wouldn’t need it, I could just get it in China. Don’t ever do that. For something so simple and so small, just bring it and save the trouble of buying it. Little did I know it wouldn’t be something basic and readily available in China.

Baby boy started complaining that his teeth hurt. Sure enough, he had something stuck in there, probably 韭菜 or another innocuous green. I had him brush his teeth to no avail. It was so bad that he said one of weirdest things I could imagine a two year old saying: “I want to go back to America because America has floss!”

I couldn’t watch my baby boy cry so I asked my mother in law if she had floss. She looked at me like I was crazy. It was a similar reaction to what I had when my father in law wanted toothpicks in America. He was visibly uncomfortable without them and I was kind of perplexed as to why he needed them. My mil had no idea where could she possibly find floss. I assumed it would be everywhere or anywhere that sold toothbrushes. 

Off we went to several supermarkets with no luck. I asked one of the store employees and she had no idea what “tooth string” was. At first she assumed I was mispronouncing something then realized it was some weird foreign item they didn’t carry.

On our disheartened walk home, we came across a dentist. Boom, floss exists at dentist offices for 20 rmb! We could have also gotten a cleaning for 50 rmb, but I didn’t trust my toddler to cooperate. 

Back at home, I offered my Nainai some. She side eyed it and waved it off as if to say she didn’t need my fancy modern contraption. Again, this is simply hygienic string. How is it these people have never heard of or used floss? I flossed baby boy’s little teeth and something hard and black came out. It was almost like plastic. I have no idea what this kid has been putting in his mouth!

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Travel woes with a 9 month old

After we booked our plane tickets for my little girls first trip abroad, I received a baby milestone update for my 9 month old detailing why it’s a horrible time to travel. Great. Those things aren’t always right, my baby is usually ahead of milestones anyways. Nope, traveling to China with a 9 month old is pretty darn awful. 

Let’s start with the clinginess. Pretty much as soon as we got to the airport, I started holding baby girl about 2o+ hours a day.  This really isn’t an exaggeration, except that time includes being slept on. She refused anyone else, including her father, and clung. I have to ask for bathroom breaks where she cries in the arms of someone else for a few minutes. I love my baby girl and I love holding her and squeezing those chubby thighs. She is also 23  lbs of squirmy weight so I don’t actually want to hold her all the time. The surroundings are new and there are lots of strangers around so she’s scared and wants mama. 

Baby food. 9 months is the fun stage where she is kind of moving past baby food and on to table foods. We did bring baby food pouches with us and they are also available in China. The pouches we bought are actually sold here for 39 rmb each. I bought them on sale for $1 in the U.S. If you don’t need imported food, I saw some Heinz brand Chinese pouches for much cheaper and then some Chinese brands. Baby girl doesn’t seem interested in the pouches anymore though, and we are traveling all over the place so it’s not all that convent to carry the food. We’ve thrown most of it away because she’ll refuse to eat it and then we won’t be near a refrigerator to store the leftovers.

Table foods. We do mostly baby led weaning at home so she’s familiar with table foods. I’m not familiar enough with whatever is in Chinese restaurant food to give it to my baby though. I feel awful about the food she is eating here because I can’t control the salt and sugar like I can at home. Usually I can find some fresh fruit or cucumbers for her at restaurants or when there’s nothing else, plain noodles or mantou. At my inlaws home, I can trust the food and just rinse the seasonings off with some filtered water. One time I was at a relatives house and poured my husband’s water into a bowl to rise something for baby girl. She seemed happy with her green bean so I thought nothing of it until I realized it was a baijiu glass! Holy crap, always taste your baby’s food before giving it! Thank goodness my husband was actually only drinking water. 

Random things people give babies. Chinese people are very generous, especially with children. I just don’t want anything they give my baby. Everywhere we go, someone offers my baby candy or a cheap plastic toy with disco lights that plays some remix of the song “my little apple.” It doesn’t matter what kind of toy it is, it lights up and makes noise and will inevitably break within a week or a day. I don’t want my baby girl putting either the plastic toys or the age inappropriate snacks in her mouth. It’s like a battle of wills turning down these gifts. 

Breastfeeding. That’s kind of awkward here. No one has said anything or even acted weird about it, but people just don’t nurse in public and also don’t nurse 9 month year olds. With no personal space, it gets awkward. 

I want to enjoy my vacation too, and I thought I’d get a break with all of our relatives around, but that’s not the case. I try to be relaxed about parenting but I feel like I have to be more watchful. I can’t socialize at all at night when she’s sleeping either because she wakes up if I’m not there. She has some sort of super sensory ability that wakes her up if I’m not nearby and no one else can calm her with her current clingyness. Maybe it would have been easier if she were a little younger or older, or maybe not. 

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Teaching to use utensils

I do wonder what the age difference is in starting to use utensils in different countries. Chop sticks obviously take more skill to use than a fork therefore children learn to use them later on. I found it interesting that my Chinese friends’ children, who are under 3, still use their hands to eat. My baby boy has always copied us and has been using a fork and spoon for months. He tries to use chop sticks, but I’m afraid he’s going to hurt himself. I’m slightly inclined to buy him a shorter set without points, but he’s still a little young. Though my son started very early, his doctor expected utensil usage by 15 months.
My inlaws don’t eat with forks therefore they aren’t inclined to give baby a fork. If they do remember a utensil, it’s usually a spoon.
Today we had noodles for dinner and I couldn’t figure out how baby was going to eat them with a spoon. I went to get his fork and told Baba that you can’t eat noodles with a spoon!
He replied, “you can’t eat noodles with a fork either!”
I couldn’t help but laugh. Can’t teach what you don’t know.

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