Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Becoming what we're called.

cross-post from:

I stole this title from an essay by Alice Walker about being called “dude.” I don’t really have any problem with the word “dude” but it is a lovely essay. But I am only slowly getting used to be being called “ajuma.” The title makes me cringe a bit, because I don’t want to be automatically incorporated into notions of bad driving, rabid consumption, visor-wearing, etc. (no offense Queen Min).

As some of you know, we have recently moved to China. I’ve written a bit on my own blog about how we’ve leveraged the knowledge and connections in the Korean community to hit the ground running here, but last week I really experienced the power of the ajuma network in particular.

Last Friday I took my older son Aiden for his school health check. The two of us moved as one wave towards the entrance of the school with all the other new students and their parents only to halt abruptly a few feet through the door as everyone in front of us stopped to survey the surroundings and figure out where to go. I said, “jian kang jian cha” to the matron standing there and she pointed me to one of the doors to the left. I went into a small room where parents and kids were crowded around a woman with a cashbox and a roster. The mom directly in front of me was a foreigner, I could tell, since her Chinese wasn’t smooth, but I didn’t know where she was from until the two kids next to her started arguing with each other in Korean. Look, I said to Aiden, Korean kids! He watched them from a position mostly hidden behind my body.

I had to fight my way into the cashier’s attention and by that time they were gone. I paid my money for “Jang Xiong Zai” and she told me where to go but I didn’t understand the directions. I figured I’d follow the flow of people, but after stepping out of the office I realized there was no flow, people were going in all different directions. I stood there in the lobby a little lost, Aiden looking at me with utter faith that I would figure things out. I waited until the people who had been behind us came out and asked them where we were supposed to go. That mom also didn’t know and went in to question the cashier again. She came back out and said something to me that I didn’t understand but I followed her and her daughter down the long hall into the gymnasium.

The gymnasium was set up with stations all around the perimeter: one table for blood, one for urine and stool samples, one for a vision test, one for blood pressure, etc. The room was full of kids, some with their parents and some in large groups with a teacher. I took my fa piao (receipt) and showed it to the people manning the front table who checked Jang Xiong Zai’s name off the list and gave me a stack of papers. She instructed me (I think) to visit each station and then bring the paper back to her.
At this point I began to feel like I could use an ally. Not that the situation itself called for any combat, but I felt I needed a cushion from the mass of people and noise. The Korean mom and her two kids were at the blood test station close to us so I went up to her and said, “최송하지만, 저희가 따라가도되요?" I picked the right person. She was surprised and a little confused to find that I spoke Korean, but not as surprised as people usually are in Korea. Her boys are twins, the same age as Aiden, but they tested into different grades, one into 3rd grade and one into 2nd grade (but not in the same class as Aiden). It turns out they live in the apartment complex next to us. (I REALLY met the right person.) The kids immediately started joking around and punching each other; they were already friends. They watched each other with fascination and a bit of pressure during the blood draw and none of them cried.

We went as a group through all the tests, meeting other Korean moms and their kids along the way. The twins’ family have lived in Shanghai for 2.5 years already and their mom (who had her youngest child, now 2, here in Shanghai) was familiar with medical terminology and the system of health checks. If I had been by myself I could have done it (I took Max for his kindergarten tests at the local hospital by myself and survived psychologically unscathed) but meeting her, the other moms, and those two boys made the process so much more comfortable. And it made the prospect of going to this new school seem far far better for Aiden. Standing in line for the chest x-rays the Korean moms and I were working out which taekwondo class to send the kids to and explaining which homework was supposed to be done during vacation. There was one pale little girl and her mom standing in line in front of me who was sort of caught in the middle of this group of Koreans.

After the health checks they came to our place to play with Legos and the Game Cube. We ordered 자장면 and spent hours talking about different schools, about language acquisition, about siblings and birth order, about raising boys, and other typical ajuma topics.

On Sunday we reported to the school for orientation. I met the twins’ mom in the room to pay for taekwondo and bus service. She had gotten there earlier and was waiting for me to sign up for taekwondo too. I went to pay for the bus first and found that Aiden’s name wasn’t on the list. The woman there told me that if he wasn’t on the list I must not have registered properly and he would be put on the waiting list. I started to get upset; I had told them we needed bus service, how could I possible take him to school every day and send Max on time too? The twins’ mom saw I was in trouble and came over to help me argue, and a few other moms followed. Them stepping in to do the talking for a little bit gave me some time to collect myself and recover my Chinese a bit; being upset doesn’t do anything for my language ability. Eventually I went to talk to the admissions director who knows me and she sent her assistant who told the bus people to let Aiden on the bus and that was that. More rigid here than in Korea and you have to know the right person to talk to; I have a lot to learn about negotiation.

But I was impressed by these Korean moms. They seem to speak Korean really well, they know how to finesse a situation, they know when to raise their voices and argue and they know when to sit back, smile, and pal around with the person. KC calls his “전투" Chinese (“combat” Chinese), not because it is necessarily confrontational but because it’s language learned in the trenches, necessary for negotiation but also ready to dig in until one side gets what it needs. Having just spent the last week relying on KC’s tutor to help us resolve issues with our shipment and our broken air conditioning, I was impressed.

We met Aiden’s teacher and received his uniform. It turns out that the pale girl who had been in the x-ray line in front of us is in Aiden’s class and I got to meet her parents who are Taiwanese but spent years living in Boston. I liked them very much and reflected that being in that bubble of Korean speakers had prevented me from making friends with anyone else -- we had spent all that time standing in line next to each other but didn’t actually meet until I was without my new entourage.

Tuesday was the second day of school, and after hammering out further bus problems on Monday we reported to our new bus stop at 7:20 sharp. The bus arrived and Aiden stepped on, then a mom and boy came running up from behind. What have we here? Another Korean! I spent about 20 minutes talking to that mom after the bus left; she had just moved to this side of town from Puxi and has lived in Shanghai for about a year, but was full of worries after switching her son’s school. I told her I had to go take a level test at Marine University where I had enrolled to take Chinese classes and somehow (did I convince her?) she decided to enroll too, so we met a third woman (also Korean, but young and relatively newly married, no kids) and went together. Then we had lunch and ended up talking for 5 hours afterwards. I introduced her to KC’s tutor, who came over to the apartment to teach KC, and she promptly hired KC’s tutor to hire her own children.

Next day. I had to pay the twins’ mom back some money I had borrowed to pay for bus service (yes, I was unprepared, despite finding nearly every day that I need to carry more cash because China is such a cash society) and I thought I should introduce the twins’ mom to the mom I had just met; their sons are in the same class. The three of us enrolled at Marine University were planning to meet and go and buy books together anyway so I asked the twins’ mom if she wanted to come to the meeting place and 인사 to the others. She ended up coming along for the ride and again we spent about five hours talking, adding another mom (whose son is also in the same 3rd grade class) around 11am. The group was snowballing, picking up new members here and there, and I was playing an active part in making that happen, hooking up the people I know and actively incorporating them. I felt empowered by the process; in less than a week I had found a community to fall back upon. After the bus problems I hadn’t had any big problems but the 3rd grade moms were having issues with uniforms, schedules, and classes and they set about pooling their resources to solve them.

This is the information gathering power of the ajuma network. It was a network I benefited from while I was living in Korea, without working very hard to create and sustain it. The neighborhood ajumas had already done all the footwork to figure out the best soccer programs, swimming lessons, teachers, the way to get certain homework assignments done, etc., and I just leeched the knowledge from then, offering my English expertise in return. Now I find myself here in China actively hooking up moms I know from different places who have similar anxieties or interests, building layers of a support system that help me deal with the largely unknown Chinese aspects of living here but also buffer me from those aspects. It is both a blessing and a source of danger, as it allows me to get a lot of things done in a short time (we’ve only been here a month) but decreases my need to interact with locals.

I guess I am an ajuma after all.

1 comment:

kate said...

Wow, I'm so impressed with your ability to make this huge transition (at least it sounds like it is pretty huge) so smoothly, and to reach out and make the connections you need. I'll be checking in to see how it all goes!