Grocery Shopping: I’m A Stranger Here

Boise from the South Bench

Somehow, in the process of recovering from jet lag, our bodies (all seven of us) have reset to the circadian rhythm of teenagers. We’re all sleeping from after 11:00pm to well past 9:00…10:00… 11:00(!) in the morning. (Not ideal for a six year old, I’m aware.) Recovering from Covid and the added fatigue didn’t help, along with staying in an Airbnb with blackout blinds and zero accountability to the outside world.

This morning when I woke up at 8:30, the house was hushed and my six exhausted people slept off an especially late 4th of July evening. Yesterday morning I had allowed myself to lie in bed and get lost in my thoughts, but after five days of being sick, lying in bed and getting lost in my thoughts had lost all of its pleasure. So by 9:00 I was out of bed, dressed and eating a banana while I made a new playlist for a run.

Fresh start.

I had a nice run, with some resistance from my post-covid lungs. Took a quiet shower, got dressed and drove to the grocery store to buy much desired breakfast cereals for the kids. Having consumed excess amounts of Lucky Charms and Marshmallow Mateys already, they had spent the drive home last night debating the appeal of various other cereals and I had my orders.

Thinking it might be nice to offer something besides cereal, I walked through the deli and the bakery. At 10:30am, the deli coolers were already full of macaroni salads, pre-packaged charcuterie meats, and Americanized versions of various ethnic foods, produced in mass quantity. The bakery was full of delicious looking doughnuts and muffins, on racks for self-selection or in pre-packaged plastic containers, combinations of banana bread, mini blueberry muffins, pre-baked cakes and cupcakes with vibrantly colored frostings. There were countless packages of cookies, biscuits, cinnamon rolls, and powdered doughnut holes.

I felt incapacitated with choice. The AC was on full-force and I had goosebumps and the impulse to rush through my shopping and get back out into the summer warmth. I didn’t add anything to my cart except a small tub of fresh salsa from the deli. And then I hurried on to the cereal aisle. Unfamiliar with the layout of this grocery story, I had to gaze down each aisle to see if it had what I wanted, and was tempted by each one. Old favorites, snacks I hadn’t had in years, called to me. Chewy Chips Ahoy. Skinny Pop. Every imaginable diet soda. Wheat thins. Jordan Almonds. So many types of Celestial Seasonings herbal teas! In stops and starts I worked my way past each of these things, never actually picking them off the shelf, just gaping at them. But it wasn’t an excited feeling. It wasn’t joy. (This wasn’t my first time back in a grocery store, I had already experienced the initial elation.)

This was more like fear, overwhelm, and panic. I try really hard to be a non-judgmental food consumer, but what will happen to me if I eat all this stuff? I don’t attach morality to eating something like PopTarts or Doritos, but all. this. food. It was all so… processed. The yogurts all looked so delicious, but also resembled dessert more than breakfast. There were at least six types of Almond milk including honey and chocolate.

I tried to think through what I should buy for lunch or dinner, and felt lost. Why was everything all of the sudden unfamiliar? I tried to imagine what 2018 Jo would have bought but I’m not 2018 Jo anymore. Grocery stores in China left MUCH to be desired, but I had my routines. I knew where to find the things I needed and wasn’t distracted by all the other food that was both unfamiliar and unappetizing to me.

I grabbed family size bags of Colossal Crunch Berry whatever and Reese’s Puffs and bolted for the checkout. The kids all need new toothbrushes but I didn’t have the fortitude to tackle that small task. Please don’t make me make any other decisions…

We watched movies about repatriation with the kids. We’ve even done this before, moved back to the US from another country. I thought I was prepared. I was in a grocery store full of things I love to eat, it was familiar, but it just felt so weird. The tears had already collected on my eye-lids and a friendly employee cautiously asked if I was okay. The man in line in front of me asked for cash back and it was one of those phrases you don’t hear or say for years and then you hear it and something in your brain sparks. Cash back. That’s a thing! I can do that!

By the time I got to my car the tears spilled out and all over. It wasn’t the sobs of a painful cry, it was just the weeping of homesickness. A strange blend of happiness and relief to be here, and sadness and grief to not be there. I needed to reach out to a friend, I needed to know if anyone else had ever felt this way so I sent a couple texts. Sure enough, my friend Heather who returned a few weeks before we did, reassured me that in fact she shops at the smallest Kroger, just to keep it simpler for now.

Because of the circumstances of the lockdown in Shanghai, which I’ll write more about later, I was so anxious to just leave. I knew at the time, and still understand, that having that perspective meant I was postponing my grief in some ways. I didn’t say goodbye to Shanghai in the ways I would have under different circumstances, with months of notice. So I expect to face these moments going forward, occasional but intense moments of loss and longing for my home and life there.

Returning to the US, and the Blog

I don’t know if anyone reads this blog, I know the blogging trend is well past it’s prime. But it’s role in my life, as a place to process big changes, still feels relevant. (Despite ignoring the blog for years at a time.)

In June we repatriated from Shanghai back to the US. Ultimately we’ll return to NYC but we’ve been bouncing around out west spending time with family. As I’ve struggled with all the feelings of homesickness, overwhelm, and loneliness that come with these major transitions, I’ve been called back to this space to try to process my big feelings.

I won’t make any effort to write in chronological order. I’ll just try to tell the story of the last few months in whatever form it comes out.

So if anyone is reading, hello. You’re always welcome, I’m willingly putting these thoughts and feelings out there. If no one is reading, I’m sharing all the same.

Make This a Cozy Thanksgiving at Home

I know I’m being a total buzz-kill here, and it’s easy for me to throw this out there from all the way over in China. But perhaps it’s because I’ve had to adapt and form new traditions during multiple disappointing and lonely Thanksgivings that I have confidence that we all can. 

UNMC is where I am currently enrolled as a student of public health. Below is an article about the UNMC hospitals reaching capacity and what it means for hospitals all around the country. I don’t believe in being motivated by fear, but I do believe in being motivated by concern and love. People who get sick during Thanksgiving will not have hospital beds to go to by the time mid-December rolls around and they are struggling to breathe.

As a public health expert in training, I’m personally asking everyone to consider the fall-out of our choices in the coming weeks. Please spend Thanksgiving at home. 

Living With Kids

Design Mom does a series on her blog called “Living With Kids” and our home in Shanghai was featured there today.

I’m not sure why I did this, I feel like I am constantly trying to remind myself that things like home decor and house size don’t matter. As my friend said so eloquently the other day – does everyone feel as conflicted about things as we do?

But I felt like I was able to convey some honest feelings in the post.

I guess I’m a product of our consumer culture and social media content craze as the much as the next middle-aged suburban white woman. So if it’s your thing – here’s the link:

One Year of Missing Queens

Of course the things I miss most are the ordinary things. Life in Queens was a walking life and I miss those walks. Homesickness hits me hardest in the summer and today I miss the walks to Vitelios grocery store. It was three blocks over, two blocks up and I would slide frozen ice packs into the laptop sleeve of my backpack. It felt cool on my back as I walked and kept the popsicles cool on the way home. Vitelios carried every flavor of Outshine popsicles and we tried them all; pomegranate, watermelon, cherry, coconut, pineapple, strawberry… but lime was my favorite. I would listen to podcasts on my walk, I’d go at night after the kids were in bed and Richard and I were craving something sweet. I’d get the cheap brand for the kids, because all groceries in NYC are expensive and Outshine popsicles were $6.49 for a box of six and Richard could eat three or four in one sitting. 

I also miss the walk to the library with the kids. The library wasn’t far, but it was hot enough that we felt the welcome reprieve of the AC when we walked through the door, along with welcoming smiles from librarians who recognized my kids. Inevitably we would encounter elderly neighbors who were astounded by how many kids I have. Amirah colored a picture while the kids made their selections, and then we would walk across the street to 7/11 where we bought slurpees to keep us cool on the walk home. Under giant sycamores who shed their bark in large plate-size pieces, we compared the colors of our tongues and laughed about brain freezes. The library was next to a McDonald’s and sometimes I’d time our library trips just before dinner so we could fill ourselves with chicken nuggets and french fries and ice cream cones for dessert. 

We also walked to Chipotle and Shake Shack for an easy dinner on a weeknight. On the weekends Richard and I would grab NYC style pizza for the kids from Lillian’s around the corner, and then walk up to Austin Street where over a few blocks we could choose between Thai, Indian, sushi, dim sum, tapas or Italian. If we hopped on the subway and rode one stop to Jackson Heights we could get Nepalese tandoori, Peruvian pio pio chicken, or Venezualan arepas, my favorite. 

Of course I also miss the places I would drive to. In the summer months we spent countless days at Rockaway beach. The beach was less than ten miles from our house but it was a 30 minute drive, so we listened to Top 40 playlists and crooned to our favorite songs. Maroon 5, Taylor Swift, Macklemore. At the beach we spread our towels and put up our umbrella. We ate summer junk food like Twizzlers and Cheetos and drank CapriSuns and Dr. Pepper. (Oh how I miss Twizzler and Dr. Pepper!)  I would also pack veggies and hummus and lots of fruit. Cameron and I would sit side by side in beach chairs, spitting cherry pits into small holes we dug in the sand with our heels. We built sand castles, Amirah napped on the giant Costco towell, Miriam collected seashells, Simon kicked a soccer ball with any random kid he met and Eli read a book. By the time we dragged our hot and tired bodies back to the car the kids were ogres, growling at me when I insisted they carry the cooler or the beach bag. 

I miss the winter too. On days when it was bitterly cold, but sunny outside I would time my errands so that Amirah would fall asleep in the car. I would hit the McDonald’s drive through and order a Dr. Pepper, small fry, with three chocolate chip cookies and eat them in the warmth of the car in the parking lot while listening to an audiobook. I definitely ate too much McDonalds in Queens. 

During sub-zero arctic freezes in January and February we would wrap our faces in scarves so only our eyes were showing while we walked to dentist appointments and piano lessons. We learned the hard way not to park on the right side of the street during a snowstorm because the plows dump the snow on the right. One morning our van was so buried in frozen slush that Eli and I had to get an Uber to make it to a doctor’s appointment. 

I miss all the familiarity and routines of our life in leafy Forest Hills, the proximity of everything we needed, the convenience of DoorDash and a CVS on every corner. Things like chapstick and infant tylenol were easily acquired, quality pizza literally moments away. I miss these things about NYC. But I also miss them about the U.S. I’m not just homesick for my most recent home, I’m homesick for a whole country.  

Cambodia Day 4

Monday morning after we checked out of our hotel in Phnom Penh we loaded up in two tuk-tuks (we couldn’t all fit in one with the luggage) and were transported to the bus station. I bought bus tickets from the company with the best reviews, and the bus was quasi-airconditioned, but it was otherwise what I would call low-budget. We had a six hour bus ride from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap- which was it’s own kind of adventure.

Phnom Penh had a trash problem. I get it- in the hustle of a big city people lead busy lives and the country is too poor to finance programs or sanitation departments. Outside of the city it was cleaner; fewer people and probably more time.
Little roadside shops like this sold gasoline in reused plastic soda bottles.

We only stopped once to buy lunch/snacks and use the restroom. The traffic was bad, and there were frightening moments on two-lane highways. I wasn’t frightened for myself- but for the smaller cars that had to give way to the giant bus that passed when it wanted to pass. The two-lane highway was really a three-lane highway with lines painted down the middle of the third lane. But the organized chaos seemed to work.

The scenery was pretty consistent the entire way. I nagged the kids about looking at the window to absorb the Cambodian countryside- there was a lot to take in. I took a few photos through the glass, a sampling that more or less represents what we saw.

Once we left Phnom Penh, I probably only saw two or three “brick and mortar” stores for the next six hours. But there were hundreds of these roadside shops.
Nearly all the houses were built on stilts. I couldn’t ever tell if that was for flooding purposes or otherwise. But the area beneath the house always had hammocks hanging and often kitchen tables and chairs.

We arrived in Siem Reap in the late afternoon at a hot and dusty bus station. It was chaos and I knew the hotel was planning to send a tuk-tuk driver but I had no idea how to find the driver. Eventually we did, but then realized/remembered that we couldn’t all fit with the luggage in just one tuk-tuk. So the driver recruited another tug-tuk driver and they drove us to our hotel.

Out hotel was a small little bed and breakfast type place. Only 6-7 rooms, and we had three of them. It was on a quiet street, quiet being a relative term, because Siem Reap is a noisy place with clubs and revving Moto engines. The manager was shy and difficult to communicate with, but he was so kind and helpful. Our first night we were getting eaten alive by mosquitos so he gave us repellant and had our rooms sprayed while we were out.

As soon as we were settled we went back into the city for dinner. We walked briefly through a market, just because I was dying to check it out, and I only lasted about four minutes before I bought something. We ate at a pizza place (of all things) that had been recommended to us and we knew it would be a kid pleaser. Richard took most of the kids back to the B&B but a couple kids stayed with me while I wandered through more markets before calling it a night.

Cambodia Day 3

Sunday morning I took Amirah and Simon to church. I like going to church in other countries, as much for the cultural experience as the spiritual. It’s authentic and natural, not designed for tourists in any way. People are just being themselves living their lives. Richard and the other kids opted for a walk on the river and good conversation in the park.

The meeting was all in Khmer, but an American missionary sat next to us and translated the best she could in a whisper. We sang the songs, broke bread and smiled at the kind elderly woman sitting next to us, who passed Simon and Amirah candies throughout the hour. Our tuk-tuk driver that the hotel had arranged for us that morning waited outside, happy to drive us back to the hotel for the return fare.

Church buddy.

We met up with the rest of the family back at the hotel and loaded up into a tuk-tuk to drive 45 minutes out to Choeung Ek. In the 1970’s during the Cambodian genocide, the Khmer Rouge massacred hundreds of thousands of their own people in places that would come to be called Killing Fields. Choeung Ek is a museum of sorts where the story of the regime is told. We had been warned that the location itself was not problematic for kids, but the audioguide had intense parts. We decided not to give audioguides to Mim and Simon and we told Cameron and Eli to just skip ahead if it was too much.

The ride out to Choeung Ek was long but interesting. We left the chaos of the city and gradually travelled through rice fields and junk yards and tin-roof neighborhoods. It was probably our first chance to observe severe poverty, and for the last few miles none of us talked much.

Richard and I were trying to stay ahead of Cameron and Eli, so we could hear what they were going to hear before they did, and at one point it got so awful that I literally jumped to Eli’s side to yank off his headphones. The horrors were unspeakable.

The Khmer Rouge were trying to create a society of equality, so they first targeted the wealthy and educated. But as many regimes do, they became so paranoid and suspicious that they were undiscriminating in who they viewed as a threat, and killed. Including children.

The grounds were so harrowing, bones and clothing continue to surface to this day. It was heavy. Eventually I took the younger kids to a little snack shack to get cold sodas while Richard and the boys finished.

The grounds of Choeung Ek were beautiful, and the atmosphere was of course
somber and still.

We used the tuk-tuk ride back into the city to have a conversation with the kids to try to process what we’d seen. As best as you can, there really is no way to make sense of these things.

Back in Phnom Penh we ate another lunch of our new favorites and then split up again. Cameron and I went to another museum about the genocide and Richard took the other kids swimming.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is an old high school that the Khmer Rouge transformed into a prison where they interrogated and tortured political prisoners. It had everything you would expect from a place like this- unfortunately these patterns repeat in history. Stories of innocent people who were forced to confess to crimes they didn’t commit, unlivable conditions and inhumane medical experiments.

At the end of our tour Cameron and I had the chance to meet a survivor named Norng Chan Phal. He was a boy at Tuol Sleng, and he survived by hiding with his little brother in a pile of laundry for days until the prison was liberated. It was touching to hear him tell us that he has a family now, and a happy life.

But I still couldn’t get my head around it. I never can. This was in the 1970s. After the Holocaust. The thing we swore would never happen again.

In fairness to Cam, it seems silly for me to have asked him to smile for a picture
after what we’d just seen.

That night we were lucky to have dinner with some friends of ours from church. The Snows have a teenage daughter at home and happened to be in Cambodia at the same time as us. They came to our hotel and we enjoyed a warm evening on the rooftop of the hotel. They are the nicest people and the kids were thrilled to have the lovely Anna there to add a new dynamic to meal-time conversation.

Cambodia Day 1 & 2

Our first day in Cambodia, our first two days actually, consisted of seven culture shocked Americans aimlessly wandering Phnom Penh in a state of fatigue and wide-eyed confusion.

We left Shanghai on Thursday evening- and as usual it was a scramble out the door and through the airport. Traveling is so much paperwork and so many security checks. There are departure cards, customs declarations health questionnaires, some countries require visas on entry, some do not. And often we are navigating this in foreign languages. By the time we got to our gate it was past dinner time and none of us had eaten. We are still new to Asian airlines so I wasn’t sure what our options would be on the plane, but there were no restaurants anywhere near our gate, so we managed with packaged noodles and crackers. Travel is so glamorous.

We arrived to Phnom Penh around 11:30pm and did all the arrival things- visas, border entry, etc. A driver had been sent for us, but he was just someone hired by the hotel and he first took us to the wrong place. There were some phone calls, some frustrated exchanges in English and Khmer and it took a long time for us to finally get to our Guesthouse.

From the moment we walked into our “hotel” I had a bad feeling. I have a pretty high threshold for what I can tolerate for sleeping accommodations. I can handle a lot, I slept in a hostel with my parents, husband and my four kids in Edinburgh. (At least the hostel was clean.) We reluctantly went up to our room and I told the kids to just get into the beds and go to sleep. It was 1:30am and nothing could be done, so everyone went to sleep while I searched for another place to stay. I found a cute hotel close by, booked two rooms and tried to sleep myself.

The next morning we woke up, we didn’t need to pack much because we hadn’t even used the bathroom, (think: dead cockroach on the floor) and ate the breakfast. The food was good, and the woman working at the front desk was confused why we were leaving. I felt so guilty but also just couldn’t do it, so we told her our plans had changed and then we lugged our suitcases out into the broiling sunshine to walk a few blocks to other hotel. We didn’t even make it far before we eagerly hefted our suitcases onto the tuk-tuk of an enthusiastic driver. We were all sweating so much – so he drove a few of us with the luggage to the new place- The Frangipani Royal Palace and Hotel. It sounds fancier than it was, but it was charming and infinitely better than the last place.

Our tuk-tuk driver waiting patiently for us while we checked into the hotel, and then gave us a tour of Phnom Penh. I wish I had paid closer attention, but it was hard to hear him over the noise of all the motorcycle engines, and hard to understand him through the unfamiliar accent. It was also really hot. But we covered a lot of ground and got to see a lot of the city, even if we weren’t really sure what we were seeing.

The Central Market was closed for a holiday, in fact we were told the city was more quiet than usual because of the holiday, many places were closed. I was pretty disappointed because I love markets so much, but we found plenty of markets later in Siem Reap.

After the tour our tuk-tuk driver took us to a restaurant for lunch. We tried fish amok for the first time- instant love- and we also had fresh fruit smoothies and mango sticky rice. Those three dishes basically became the staples of our whole Cambodia vacation. I probably don’t need to say another word about food because that pretty much covers it.

Amirah and Richard took a nap while I lazed by the pool and the big kids played.
The swimming pool was on the roof, where we had great views of the city.

We went back to the hotel, went for a swim, and then dressed for a cultural dance performance that night. I’d bought tickets online months ago and I was really excited- especially since the rest of the day felt like a bit of a flop. We ate some pizza in the hotel lounge before braving a crazy rainstorm to get to the concert. Unfortunately, for reasons we could never ascertain, the event was cancelled and we didn’t get to see the concert. We walked along the river for a little while, but we were still feeling overwhelmed and culture shocked. As a consolation prize we took the kids to a Cat-fe.

Yep, a Catfe. A place where you order smoothies and desserts and consume them right along with feline friends. Some of us were thoroughly creeped out, some of us were in Cat Heaven. I’ll leave it to you to observe.

Masks: Ex-pat-splained

I wore a surgical mask every day of my professional career. (Limited as it was.) I always hated them, especially when I was pregnant. It felt claustrophobic and stuffy. So I absolutely came into a mask-wearing culture with preconceived attitudes. As with all confirmation bias I was on the prowl for research and evidence that wearing masks was neither helpful or necessary. 

During our look-see visit last February I asked our relocation agent if Chinese people wore masks as a precaution against pollution or illness and she said “Both.” When we first moved to Shanghai and there were days of bad air quality, I made a small effort to get my kids to wear them on their walk to the bus stop, but they didn’t want to and I didn’t force them. 

Masks are a way of life in China and other Asian countries. It’s just something you do, like washing your hands after you use the bathroom, and covering your mouth when you cough. It’s a courtesy, you do it to protect yourself and you do it for the good of the whole. 

But I was not convinced that wearing a mask was protecting me from anything. From the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak I began seeing experts comment on the ineffectiveness of masks as a preventive measure. I felt so vindicated. Article after article, quote after quote talked about how there was little research to support the practice of mask wearing for people who were not already sick. Being absolutely sure that I was not a sick person, I felt completely justified in not wearing a mask. And at first I stubbornly refused to do so. Whenever the subject of masks came up, or panic regarding the shortage of masks, or well-meaning people making sure I had some- my thought was always

“I believe in science. I don’t wear a mask.” 

Ethnocentrism at its finest. 

Then, as it happens, I was enlightened by a (local) friend. 

No one thinks they are the sick person. So we all wear a mask as a demonstration that we are willing to take precautions for the public good. 

Especially with this coronavirus, when people can be sick but not exhibiting any symptoms. There is tremendous social pressure to wear masks, people will literally point at my face with disapproval, and chastise me in words I don’t understand. At this point in the outbreak many places will not permit entry without one. At the airport in Manila we were nearly the only people who weren’t wearing masks. And on the flight into China from Manila we were literally the only people not wearing them. For all intents and purposes they are now mandatory in Shanghai.  People, ALL people, walking their dog, shopping at the grocery store, playing games in the park; all wearing masks. 

The trouble is, masks are being rationed. Our first weekday back in Shanghai I had to go to the neighborhood management office and register with my passport, phone number and address for the opportunity to purchase *five* masks when they become available. (It has been a week and I’ve had no word.) Thankfully, a friend from our church branch brought me a few to use so I can go shopping, etc. 

I still think that mask-wearing is excessive and misunderstood. But I’m willing to make space for cultural practice and for simple practicality, so now I wear a mask.  

Teaching English in the Migrant School –

In the car on the way to the school, I can’t get a word in edgewise. But I don’t mind. Never has a Hall been so content to just listen and observe. 

There are nine of us from my neighborhood who carpool together each week to teach at the school. It’s standard for expat families to have one car and one driver, which means that each week we take turns depending on when our working spouses need the car and driver. We take two vans, and we always arrange last minute who will ride with whom. It always works out, everyone is always taken care of, and each week it’s a different combination of people in the car. Among the nine of us there are four Americans (three women, one man), and five other women from India, the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden and the Philippines. We are all the “trailing partners”, meaning the non-working spouse, also known as “Tai Tai”s, or in the case of the one trailing husband, “Guy Tai.” 

The conversations in the vans are dynamic, and no topic is off limits. Voices escalate, disagreements occur, and people are called out. 

“I’m selling my air filters if anyone is interested” Mirjam says. “They are the best, imported from the Netherlands.” 

“You can’t have the best of everything you know” Gauri quips in her Indian accent “You are always saying you have the best husband, the best hair salon, the best air filters. It’s not possible that you always have the best.” She makes a dramatic eye roll. 

But always in good fun. We talk about travel plans and parenting, and we share without inhibition our cultural differences. A favorite conversation of mine involved everyone discussing the traditions around their marriage ceremonies. An American friend explained the concept of a rehearsal dinner, while my Dutch friend said you just show up at the church and then call it good, and our Indian friend elaborated on three days worth of parties and celebrations that left her and her husband completely exhausted by the time they made it to the honeymoon suite. 

There are so many layers of personality, culture and friendship that I can’t stop smiling and laughing, sometimes in complete shock at the turn of the conversation. But these people, the kind of people who will commit half of their Wednesday every week to volunteering at a migrant school, are good to their core. Of course we don’t always agree, our beliefs cross a distance as wide as our geographical homes, but the feeling of collective joy and belonging has been so wonderful for me.

I gather outside the school with the seven other teachers. The building is a tall and minimalist concrete structure, painted a pale blue. I imagine it was built quickly, I’ve seen buildings like it go up in a few weeks. Altogether there are 16 of us, four in each grade. We make last minute adjustments to the lesson plan in the large and empty lobby. There is no front desk, receptionist or chairs, just a few posters on the wall listing school rules. No one I know back in the U.S. would send their kid to this school. 

In anticipation of the bell, we split up and climb the stairs to the classrooms. The stairs are located next to the restrooms, which emit a potent odor, so as I pass take the opportunity to lather my hands with some pleasant smelling hand sanitizer. There is one long hallway, with four doors on the right side, and each classroom looks the same; windows along one wall, and chalkboards at the front and the back. Some of the chalkboards are covered in colorful chalk drawings of Chinese characters, dragons and animals. The children gather around us, offering shy smiles and candies. Our Guy-Tai friend loves to tease and thumb-wrestle with them, and they all love him best. 

As the bell rings the kids take their seats and I watch from the front of the room as they begin eye exercises. Myopia development in kids and youth has been a problem in China for a long time, and all primary school age students in China do daily exercises at school. A loudspeaker in the corner of the room near the ceiling plays quiet music while a child’s voice counts and directs the kids to close their eyes, and rub their temples. I find the music and incantation for the exercises to be soothing, and appreciate the calming effect it has on the kids. There are 50-55 students in each class, so these quiet minutes offer a nice reprieve from the more chaotic moments ahead. 

I teach second grade kids who are too young for attitude, and eager to please. They smile big, participate with enthusiasm. They love to practice their English phrases. “Hello. How are you?” They say with clear enunciation.  I always respond as expected at first, “I’m fine, how are you?” But then I’ll throw them for a loop and ask their favorite color. They look blankly at each other and giggle with embarrassment and I wink back to let them know I’m teasing. We have an added celebrity factor because we are non-Chinese, which helps us keep their admiration and attention. We are a novelty, a change of pace, and we bring a much more relaxed teaching style. When we finish our lesson they rush to gather our magnets and use a damp cloth to wipe the blackboard.

We begin the first of three 40 minute classes, four of us teaching together. The kids are probably confused by our pronunciation as there are two Americans, one Brit and one Singaporean all saying the word “sweater” so differently. 




It can be awkward. During the class where we taught the vocabulary for school supplies there was some debate as to whether to use the word eraser or the word rubber.  My American friend had a hard time keeping a straight face. (Rubber means something very different to her.)  

For the last class we split and teach in pairs. Most of us know very little Chinese, but we’re encouraged to use just English anyway. It can be frustrating, some words are so abstract and hard to teach with just pictures and hand gestures. We play a game over and over where we call on five boys and five girls to line up at the front. We hang printed papers with English words on the chalkboard and give one girl and one boy a fly swatter. Someone from the back of the room calls out the word and whoever swats the word first gets a point for their team. The kids love this game. Sometimes papers and magnets go flying as they swat at the chalkboard with exuberance. Their laughter is contagious and I’m always touched by the fact that language is not necessary for humor. 

Before the bell for the last class rings we can all smell the food in the hallway. Lunch helpers carry gigantic pots of soup and trays of rice. The kids clamber from their desks when our class is done. As we walk down the long hallway and they wait in their lunch line, girls in pigtails shout “bye bye!” and boys wearing t-shirts with drug references and American rap lyrics on them give us high-fives. How is a Chinese eight year old supposed to know what the English word “cocaine” means? 

We get back in our cars, some of us pop an Excedrin or Diet Coke, and we share stories all the way home about the funny moments, or the naughty kids, or difficulty of the task. Sometimes we ask each other if we’re really doing any good. The kids we teach are the children of migrants, and they are not allowed to attend regular public schools. In order to qualify for secondary school they will need to pass English exams, and we are sure that our weekly volunteer lessons are terribly inadequate. But we are also sure that we can’t stop doing it. So, as with many things, our mediocre effort is all we can offer.