Monday, December 22, 2008

The age of criticism

First, a belated response to some comments.

David, thanks for the warm comments. I hope you are all well, and that we'll be able to see each other soon -- maybe in HK or Shunde? We miss you all. I love seeing the pictures of Susie. No matter where you end up, I think hearing Korean from a young age will help her down the line, even if she doesn't continue with the language. I suspect that part of the reason I've been able to pick up Korean and Chinese relatively quickly is that I was exposed to Cantonese when I was young.

Micah, thanks for your comment! I agree with what you said about memorization. One of the reasons I'm content with Pinghe right now is because they do, through subjects taught in English with American texts, include more creative expression than I was expecting. Aiden's doing a speech to run for mayor of the class today, he made a poster to save the sharks before that, and made a model of ancient Egypt before that... those were the kinds of activitis I did in public school in the U.S., and I think I had a very good education. These projects involve some relatively long-term planning and a variety of forms of expression: verbal, 2-dimensional art, 3-dimensional art. I'm not sure what the U.S. is like these days (and of course the U.S. educational system is very regional); but while I think the U.S. in general is good with creative problem solving and critical thinking there seems to be strong distaste for memorization. And sometimes I think memorization is good. You've got to memorize the times tables. You've got to memorize spelling. And when it comes to learning a language you've got to do some memorization. Even in a speech, you've got to be able to hold the structure in your head and talk around it. So my comment about memorization wasn't to embrace it wholeheartedly, but to recognize (as someone who also has had a distaste for it pedagogically) that a little memorization can be a good thing. But I should have also commented that in his curriculum overall memorization has been accompanied by other more creative and critical techniques.

This is a bit tangential but I really like the writing textbook they are using. I've done a lot of teaching of writing (to graduate students and for younger children) and I was really impressed but the book. But (as I'm finding now) this kind of work (creative writing, projects like those described above) requires a lot of participation from the parents.

Some kids are more self-sufficient (most girls seem to be able to do these things by themselves, if my quick survey of the other moms counts as evidence) but with Aiden I have to spend a lot of time helping him break his projects (and test preparation) into steps, making him work on those things daily, helping him through the process of revision. As any writer knows, most of writing is being able to step back and think through a piece of work in multiple ways, to be able to sense structure and flow, and then to revise. Aiden’s a “let’s finish this quickly and play” kind of kid. Helping him with projects -- helping him tame his ideas and make them presentable and polished -- requires a lot of patience (I’m failing in that area) and attention. Memorization, from the parent’s perspective, is easier. It doesn’t require much thinking on the parent’s part. Maybe my standards are high (I don’t think they are) but this kind of schooling (assuming the projects are done at home -- the kids in American schools have very little homework) requires a lot more of the parent than the other kind does. I’m very glad that I’m not working and can spend this time with him, because he really needs the help. Max is a different animal. He sits next to us at the table and works with a great deal of concentration on his workbooks and drawings. I’m guessing that he’ll be able to do his work more independently. I don’t know how much of that is related to birth-order (he likes to do what his brother does, even if it means sitting at the table and “studying” for several hours every day) and how much is personality. Max has always been more detail-oriented, better with small-motor control, more into drawing. I’m teaching him to read Korean now and he’s catching on surprisingly quickly.

On another tangent, my blog and my other writing has suffered from this lack of time. I’m in school all morning and I have to save energy and patience to help Aiden with his homework all evening. I have a few hours in the afternoon to split between building my social relationships, doing household things, and working on my own long-term writing project. It tires me out.

What I’ve been meaning to write about: the age of criticism

Until a certain age Mommy and Daddy are just Mommy and Daddy, not People -- but the main sources of comfort, security, and knowledge of rules and boundaries. Kids Max’s age can’t think of their parents as people, they just are. But at some point kids start to realize that their parents are not perfect, that they can be criticized like anyone else. And once that criticism starts, it never stops, does it?

Aiden’s reaching the age of criticism. He’s old enough to have accumulated a large set of evidence -- make that grievances -- about the way that we treat him. He’s been around the block and seen the large discrepancies in the way people parent in different families and different places. I have taken care to explain to him (many times, I tend to run at the mouth) why I make certain decisions that are different from his friends’ parents: why he’s not allowed to watch much TV, why I won’t buy him a Nintendo DS, why we have to move, etc. There are unintended side effects to everything. A few weeks ago we met the daughter of a friend and after a few minutes Aiden sidled up to me and whispered, “Mom, that kid is really spoiled.” He then spent the rest of the evening making whispered analysis of all the ways in which the mom encouraged the kid’s spoiled behavior. So he’s able to see the ways in which parenting choices mold the behavior of children, and I think that’s generally a good thing (as long as he keeps it to himself in the name of politeness) but it’s also encouraged him to increasingly turn his critical eye on my parenting choices. Some days I’m feeling a little like a Big Three Executive meeting Congress. But with a little more to show, I hope.

The other day he was being extra fidgety with his Chinese tutor (who has learned that days when Aiden doesn’t have gym class are days in which he cannot sit still) and she jokingly said, “If you don’t listen to me maybe I should start hitting you.” He said, very seriously, “You can’t do that!” She said, “Your mom doesn’t hit you?” He said, “No, of course not! If she did I could leave and go to another family.”

Where did he get that idea? But this idea seems to have taken over his thinking. I guess I have, in retrospect, presented parenting, living, behavior, etc. as a series of choices, emphasizing the ways in which we can pick and choose how we want to be, and it makes sense I suppose to extend that to family. The other day he was complaining that an old reward system that had existed in Korea was no longer (I had taken advantage of the move and let it expire). I explained that since he was older he no longer needed to be rewarded for that particular behavior; he was mad and said, “I don’t want to be a part of the family anymore. I want to go to a different family!” I laughed at him. Not a nice laugh, I was pissed. “You want to leave your family over a piece of CANDY???” Because I forget that although he can be supremely rational about some things, he’s just an 8-year old, unable to look past the blow of a loss of a piece of candy and remember all the ways in which his family is really good.

In other kid news...
Both kids are speaking so well it is a little scary. Aiden now has character dictation once a week and they’ve progressed to some tough characters. His stroke order is more correct than mine, and he can now understand grammatical patterns without ever learning them as such. (It’s so different with the adult learner. Though I do remember finding myself using grammatical patterns I never learned in Korean; one day they just started emerging from my mouth. Surprised me as much as anybody else.) Max can now have short conversations in Chinese, and he speaks whole sentences easily.

I’m so jealous.

Aiden came home one day to tell me a story about an incident in gym class that included the following: “...and he hit me with the 쇠 hula hoop and then the 후반장 said, “下课了?“ And the teacher said, “没有。” It made me laugh. We tend to mix a lot of Korean and English at home, but that was the first time he threw some Chinese into the mix. It used to be Korean with a little English, then it was something like, “Mommy will you 고쳐this 장난감for me? 빨리!" (Max) And now it’s more like, “Mommy can we have some 계란for dinner?” Just a word here and there. Though they still tend to talk to each other in Korean. We’ll go back to Korea for a few weeks in January and I think their Korean ratio will rise at that time. I’m just playing with percentages now.


I’m not sure how long I can keep the Santa Claus charade up. I took them to see Santa at a fair at Concordia school last month and Aiden said with suspicion, “Is this the real Santa?” One of the volunteers said, “Is there any other kind?” Then just before we sat on Santa’s lap he asked me, “Can I speak to Santa in Korean?” I was mentally kicking myself for having told him last year that Santa can speak all languages in the world. The circumstances necessitating that declaration are fuzzy but I think it was probably because he wrote his letter in English and Korean last year. This year it was all in English. Anyway, I told him something lame like, “This is an English-speaking fair and for the sake of politeness maybe you should stick to English.” And then a week or so later we went to see the lighting ceremony at the Hongqiao Marriot where there was another Santa. Aiden said, “Mommy, this is a different Santa!” I think the jig is almost up.

From last year, here’s my post on “Lies I tell my kids.” It still makes me laugh.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Four Months in

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.