I can hardly believe we’ve been here for four months. I’m feeling more settled. I really love our apartment and neighborhood. Now that the weather has turned cold and I spend the mornings shivering in an unheated and damp classroom, I am supremely grateful for our apartment with its heated floors, double layers of windows and sunlight. So many Shanghai residents spend the winter (so I hear) with their windows open and no heat. I suppose that’s better for the environment but I’m such a wimp about cold I can’t imagine it.
Speaking of the environment, I meant to mention some of the features of our place that I really like. We control our water temperature, so we only heat the water when we need to use it. The boiler doesn’t run all the time; you turn it on before you need to take a shower or run the floor heating system. (Our apartment has ondol heat which is not common in China but since we sleep on the floor we looked for an apartment with this feature; our neighborhood has a lot of Koreans and therefore a good number of ondol apartments.) You can turn it off when you’re not using it. Same thing with the condenser for the air conditioning and the heating system. Also each room has controls for both floor heat and ceiling level air conditioning/heating. And, like in Korea, there’s a switch to shut off the gas when we’re not cooking. Gas, electricity, and water are relatively expensive in Shanghai and we use them as sparingly as possible, although I have been going a little crazy with the oven (having not had one for the last 5 years) and I do like to make the floor nice and warm when I get home in the evening. Sometime in the middle of the night I’ll turn everything off. Our apartment is pretty well insulated (unusual for China) and retains the heat well.
I also love our neighborhood. The complex itself is very nicely done, when I look out my window I see trees and water and the effect is very peaceful. Cars can’t come into the interior of the complex so it is quiet and safe for the kids to play. There are lots of hidden paths which Max loves to explore. In the mornings there are always a lot of people doing taeqiquan and some sort of sword-dancing. In the afternoons the interior areas are dominated by kids riding their bikes or playing badminton. Just outside of our apartment are shops and cafes. A Sephora and Zara are opening across the street which may pose a danger to my budget. The subway station is a little far compared to Seoul but I found that it only takes me 15 minutes to walk at my pace, and the station is on line 2, which is a really good line for going to Lujiazui or Puxi.
The big language news this month is that Max has started speaking. He started perhaps a week or two ago -- I noticed it when two of his friends came over to play. One of his friends doesn’t speak much English (though she speaks Spanish and French) so the three of them were fighting in Chinese: 这是我的！不，这是我的！ Max was saying it also. After that he took off and seems really keen to speak it. He asks me for translations so he can say all the things he wants to say. One day he came home upset because, “Michelle told Julia ‘I won’t be your friend anymore.’ But she said it in Chinese.” So he understands more than what he can say, and he’s able to respond to questions appropriately most of the time. I’ve also made some headway teaching him to read 한글. Considering how much time I have to spend with Aiden on his homework, this is quite an accomplishment. KC brought back some workbooks from Korea on his last trip and now when Aiden is busy doing his homework (if Max is not still working in his dinner) Max sits at the table and does his homework too. He can now recognize 가,나,다,라, and 마. Poor second child, completely neglected by mommy. He’s also doing better with English lower case letters and phonics. Good thing he likes to draw and write.
Aiden’s recognition of characters is very good now and they’ve started to write and have dictation in the last few weeks. Like me, he can recognize many characters but blanks on how to write them. He also has trouble remembering stroke order. He continues to do 2-3 hours of homework a night. After yelling at him for a half an hour about why he can’t remember the difference between plural and plural possessive I have to remind myself that I’m asking him to absorb an awful lot of information at once and asking an 8-year old to concentrate for that long is, well... asking a lot. The other moms are telling me to give it 6 months; they say after 6 months it gets a lot easier. Overall he’s happy and cheerful although he often complains about having to go to school.
Lately Max has been asking a lot about death. I remember Aiden having similar questions at around 3 or 4 years of age. Max asks, “Why do people have to die? Will Mommy die? Who will cook me food then? [this made me laugh] How will I die?” I told him that everybody dies and that this is why we should live each and every day well. So Aiden said, “But how can I do that when I have to go to school every day? It’s a waste of time! I can’t play, I just have to study.”
As for me, I feel like I’ve hit a plateau, but that may not really be the case. I remember in studying Korean that my progress seemed to follow a step-lilke pattern -- I’d feel like I was stagnating and not learning anything for a while, then all the sudden I’d make a lot of progress. But the hard thing is that often you don’t realize how much you actually are progressing. It’s not noticeable. It’s hard for me to get a sense, for instance, of how much my Korean improved after moving to Seoul. I don’t have a clear memory of what I knew at the point at which we moved, but I do remember that I only understood about half of my conversations with my neighbors. I also remember that there were so many words I didn’t know when KC and his parents talked to each other that I didn’t bother to ask what they meant. By contrast, I understand almost everything they say now; if they use a word I don’t know I ask about it.
The problem right now is that I am a very poor student. I don’t do the homework and I don’t review. For shame. Also I skip class whenever I’m too busy or feeling sick (like right now). The other problem is that I don’t interact enough with Chinese people. I talk to Aiden and KC’s teacher every day, but you have to talk with a variety of people in order to really learn to speak and listen well, especially in China where there’s so much variation in usage and pronunciation. When I was in Korea meeting with other school moms I got to hear a lot of Korean -- they talked a lot and were generally nervous about speaking English. But here when I meet the school moms they are all comfortably bilingual. They speak to each other in Chinese but speak to me in English. Their English is so good and my Chinese so poor by comparison that it feels inappropriate for me to inflict my Chinese on them, therefore I have less chance to practice.
One thing about moving abroad is that you learn that you have to work at cultivating social relationships from the moment you hit the ground. I’m willing to skip class more than I should if it involves meeting people, because I know that I need those relationships for psychological and practical purposes. The biggest accomplishment over the last few months is probably that we have connected with a bunch of other people through our schools, neighborhood, and random other ways.