The Little Things and The Big Things

There was a moment last week where I was sitting on the couch with my tutor and the Ayi. I know just barely enough Mandarin that when I hear people speak it, I don’t just glaze over, my mind is trying to pick out recognizable words. It’s like reading license plates as cars speed past in the opposite direction on the highway. I catch a ‘hao’ or ‘da’ or ‘shenma’ and just like that, an entire sentence has flown by before I’ve pieced together what I’ve just heard. It’s like trying to catch fish with your bare hands. The harder you try, the more futile it becomes. Determination isn’t enough. It’s still too slippery.

During this moment, they weren’t talking to me, but to each other, and I was trying to follow along, but I felt overwhelmed and maybe it was because we were sitting so close to each other or because they were talking so loudly but I started to feel a little woozy. I wondered who I was to insert myself into these women’s lives, how surreal it was that they live in China and this foreigner, this American has somehow held them hostage in her home by paying them to sit and talk to her. I felt keenly aware that I hadn’t earned my way into this situation, I hadn’t learned the language enough to make their acquaintance and we weren’t friends, really, although they treated me as sweetly as anyone. Anyway, it was in this moment of surreal reflection that I two thoughts: first, ‘I’m completely in over my head’ and second, I felt this overwhelming sense of gratitude. The gratitude felt like a swell of emotion, like I could have cried or laughed or hugged them right there.

When I think about it, really get honest with myself, I’m not entirely sure why I feel compelled to push myself and do these kinds of things. It’s always so hard, and I always complain. Yet, I keep coming back. Maybe I’m chasing that feeling.

Now, Cole’s involved and I’m not sure how I feel about that either. While the nanny is playing with Cole and talking to him in Mandarin that I can’t understand, I have pang. I’m a little worried about him changing and not knowing him anymore. Or about giving him too strange of a childhood. On some level, I want him to be like me, to have grown up with only one language, so that I can understand how he thinks. If I have a bilingual child, when I grew up monolingual, how can I possibly understand his mind? That pang was a little bit of fear, the worry that I won’t be able to pull it off. What if he turns to me and says something that I don’t understand? I don’t ever want to see that look of dawning awareness on his face.

Of course, I suspect I’m a little bit jealous of the nanny, I want him to like her, but not too much, like a little wink between us, where he’s like, “okay, but she’s no mama!”

I’m feeling a lot of crazy things right now.

At times it feels like vertigo, and I catch myself observing from somewhere above my body, above the thick cloud of impenetrable language that fills my day. Yet, this week, my refrain has been simple, “I am so lucky, I am so lucky.” It was easy to think once that I deserved this life, maybe when I was three months outside of my job and traveling in Europe, still living off of savings that took me a year to amass and the selling of my house and most of my possessions. Then, I had earned it. I deserved it. Now? Now, I’m so lucky to be still traveling after all these years, making a living on my writing and photography, staying at home with my son and my husband. I work hard too, but so do a lot of people. Really my hard work is just being polite. It’s the least I can do to honor the luck that has come into my life.

Those are the big things. Now for the little ones. First, my Ayi has the mad hook up.

I’m not sure what she says, but when housecleaning comes, she doesn’t let them in, but she always comes back with handfuls of miniature shampoos and shower gels. Before she came, we never got free product! Now we’re awash in the stuff.

She also takes the time to line up all my toiletries in neat little rows, which I always forget how she does it, so I end up messing it up for her everyday. You know we actually clean before she comes? We’re like, “Get up! Get up! The Nanny is coming! We have to hide the evidence! She can’t know about last night’s noodle incident! And whatever else embarrassingly messy stuff we did! See isn’t having help great! Now hand me that disinfectant!”

We haven’t cleaned this much in years. Or gotten up this early. It’s the most normal we’ve lived in a long time. Well, normal in a parallel universe where everyone speaks like ole timey newspaper editors (there’s a lot of shh and arr in Mandarin like “Lishen herre, kid, ya see?” but you know, in Chinese) and blueberry is considered an acceptable pizza topping. Other than that? Totally normal.


  1. There will always be that little wink between you two – no one is going to replace his mama, not matter how many languages they know. I don’t think it’s a crazy fear; it comes from loving your son so much. You’ll break through in understanding Chinese because you keep making the effort to learn 🙂

    • co-signing with Patricia on this one. There’s a special bond between you two that language can never take away. heck, parents with monolingual children still have no clue about what’s going through the child’s head 90% of the time lol

  2. So many interesting and wonderful things going on in this post, but really got me was the end. Blueberries?! On their pizza!?!! Who’d a thunk.

    • Maybe at first, but I’m enjoying it here. Or let me say, I’m starting to enjoy it here. Things are clicking along. I’m going to a cooking class this afternoon. Chiang Mai was really easy, but I get bored. I like the challenge. Usually. 🙂

  3. i love that you mention that its mostly the unexpected moments where you are filled with a sense of awe and realization about what’s going on in your life. having just moved to london, i don’t daily realize that im actually in london. i work, i exercise, i write, i see the hubby, so life feels normal for the most part. except, for when we’re crossing the tower bridge in a car. or when its so friggin easy to get to other places in europe :o) and that’s when you’re like OMFG, I’m in London!