Saturday, October 09, 2010

Two Years Later

My goodness it's been a long time since I've blogged. Too long. Sitting here in front of the computer I'm at a loss for how to start. My fingers don't know their way around the keyboard anymore, and I find myself sounding more like whatever book I'm reading, my old blogging voice buried somewhere in the recesses of my brain. 

So where were we? I think I had been providing updates on the language. Here's where we are on that. Aiden is much more comfortable in Chinese and his Korean is still very good. Some of the comic book series that he loves reading in Korean have been translated into Chinese, and he can read those too. He used to be shy about talking to Chinese-speaking kids in the playground, or waitresses in the restaurant, or taxi drivers, but now he just talks. He doesn't always know all the words, but he is able to converse easily, without thinking much. He still reads a lot in Korean and we have been spending about 2 months a year in Korea, so I don't think his Korean has suffered much if at all. Through his reading he's still picking up a lot of vocabulary. He still thinks my Chinese is better than his, but I doubt that's the case. He certainly can read better than I can.

Max's Chinese has improved a lot, but his perfectionist tendencies hold him back in public. He will speak Chinese if he knows the other person doesn't speak English or Korean, but otherwise he will not. He is now in first grade at the same school Aiden goes to, and doing quite well. His Korean has been declining since we moved to Shanghai, but I spent a lot of effort teaching him to read last year, so at least he's literate. Every time we go back to Korea for a month he picks it all up again, but English is definitely his strongest language, by far. He's also become a pretty proficient reader in English. 

Felix has joined our little house of boys, but his language ability is limited so ah-goo and grunting at this point. I've been telling the big boys that they need to speak to Felix in Korean, but I haven't enforced it so far. I need to come up with a language plan for him fairly soon. Something like: I speak English, KC and the other kids speak Korean.... but then what about the Chinese? Hmm.

We have been here for over 2 years now and it is finally feeling comfortable. Two years seems to be the amount of time it takes. We've settled down. We're in a different apartment complex (for the last year) which we love. The kids have their groups of friends, who are quite international. There's a gang of Korean boys on the bus, and a Korean basketball team on Sundays, which allows them to maintain a nice Korean social community while in Shanghai. Aiden's soccer team and Max's Kung Fu classes are Chinese. And we have a great group of friends from all over the place, with North America well represented. 

China still doesn't feel as comfortable as Korea, and it never will. I feel like I have a good sense of Korea, an impression in my mind of how things work. But my relationship with Korea is far longer, I gain a lot of insight into Korea through KC, we lived in Seoul for much longer (5 years), and we lived as locals, with the kids in public school. I used to go long periods without speaking to anybody who wasn't Korean. Here my life is different; we live in a bubble. It is not as opaque as it could be. We don't have a driver, we don't live in a villa, we take public transportation, we don't live in Jinqiao, our kids go to a Chinese school. But it is a private school, and they are in the international class. I would love to hang out and speak Chinese with the other moms from school (this, after all, is how I picked up so much Korean -- by lunching with the ladies) but it would be a burden to them since their English is fantastic. Our roots in Korea grow deeper and deeper because of the local school connection; every time we go back to visit, we run into Aiden's friends on the street, and the moms make as much effort as I do to maintain the kids' friendships. Seoul feels like home, and our neighborhood there is comfortable and easy. People know our names and we know theirs, and they are still around every time we go back. Because our friends in Shanghai are mostly international (even if they are from Shanghai originally), we are always saying goodbye and making new friends. In two years I won't know anybody here, I think. They will all be moving on. 

It's wonderful to meet international people because they understand so much of the way we live, and we understand each other so well. But like us they tread lightly in China; they are here to experience, and observe, to taste the air and leave and go taste the air somewhere else. They are not here to put down roots, to be invested, to shape this place. And for the most part their insight about China does not go longer than 5 or 6 years. They have an emotional relationship to China but it is personal, not so much historical. 

In Korea my friends are not so international, they are not so well traveled and maybe not as well educated, but they are Korea. They talk and understand from long experience in that one place, and their knowledge of that place is inseparable from themselves. What I learn about Korea when talking to the ladies at lunch may not be historical or factual but it teaches me about the categories and stories they carry around with them as they approach the world, and that teaches me about the way they understand things. 

I had hoped to develop a sense of China the way I did of Korea, but I don't think that's going to happen. We won't be here for long enough, my ties to the community are too superficial, and, let's face it, Chian is BIG. Much bigger, much more diverse, and much more regional than Korea. Maybe, in fact, I don't have a sense of Korea at all, just of my little area of Gang-nam in Seoul. But Gang-nam in Seoul is kind of where it's at, and a fourth of the population of Korea lives in Seoul. So that's a good start. But Shanghai, despite its size, is nothing compared to the rest of China, and even within China, there's so much regionalism. My ayi is from Sichuan, one tutor is from Shanghai, and the other is from Dong Bei somewhere (yes, we have a tutor for each child and an ayi, I am a total tai-tai now), and I can see the differences, and the skepticism and assumptions they arm themselves with when it comes to people from other regions. But I don't understand them. 

I wasn't expecting to emerge from this experience as an old China hand. I really hate it when people go to a country for a short time (and 2 years is a short time) and then talk about it like they really understand it. After all, I lived in the States for what? 28 years? And couldn't tell you the first thing about the Deep South or Texas or the Midwest (even though I lived in Ann Arbor) or LA or New York. I can't explain the Tea Party. I don't know what The Hills is about, or why people like wearing sweatpants with words written on the butt. So this is not a complaint or even really a post of disappointment. 

I'm not sure what it is. Maybe a proactive staying off of "what is China really like" type questions, which I can't answer. But also I think a preemptive sense of loss. Because I really would like to be able to hang around for another decade and see what happens here. I have already witnessed so many changes, and they are going to keep happening. Seoul is different, really different, each time I arrive. And China is changing even faster than that, fast enough to feel viscerally, every day, not just at intervals after leaving. But I won't get to stick around and witness this as a resident, because we are leaving in 4 months. We are moving back to Seoul for 18 months (give or take), then probably back to the U.S.

I haven't blogged for many reasons, some of them logistical, but underneath that there's been a hesitation to say anything until I actually had something to say. I remember coming to a point, after about 2.5 years in Korea, when things clicked in my head and all the fleeting impressions coalesced into stories, cause and effect, statements, insights. I've been waiting, patiently, for that to happen here, knowing it would take a long time. But now I'm out of time, so I'd better start typing. 


Sandra said...

It's really good to read you again.

Nicki Salcedo said...

I miss reading your blogs, but when you write, I'm so happy to read about your life and it's complexities. You know how I feel about writing...Good for the soul. I'm in awe at your ability to navigate these three worlds and cultures.

Right now my life is divided into happy culture and tired culture. Not nearly as exotic as yours so I appreciate your insight. And I know you do well wherever you are.