First Day, First Friends, First Impressions
After flying roughly 9,000 miles around the world to Beijing, we slept our first night in our new home. We all nodded off between 10 and 11ish. It was still the middle of the day for us, so transitioning with a 5-6 hour nap/night was a good start. We were wide awake at 4am. I’ll take it.
I had packed Nona’s favorite breakfast food. When I say favorite, I mean the only food she will eat for breakfast – oatmeal. And not just any flavor mind you. She eats only the apples and cinnamon flavor. Being the brilliant mother I am, I packed about 30 packets. I know how important it will be to get Lars and Nona off to a good start with breakfast and how annoyingly picky they both are. I proudly go to the kitchen, take out the carton that we hope has milk in it and get the cheerio-type cereal out of the cupboard and take the oatmeal packet from the zip-lock baggie.
Here is where my brilliance gets a little tarnished. “And what will you put the oatmeal and cereal in?” you ask. “And with what will you eat the cereal?” I was so tired from flying that I totally forgot the “small” detail of dishes and silverware.
Breakfast would be served at 7:00am in the school cafeteria, so we could technically wait. Soren and I were already planning on that and I had my coffee stored in the fridge from the night before. However, I knew 100% my children would not find anything they would eat at that breakfast and then we would be off to see their new school and meet their teachers with an empty belly and only five hours of sleep. Even under the best of circumstances, starting at a new school is difficult, let alone going to one that none of us has ever seen and with a huge case of jet-lag. I was desperate to solve this puzzle.
I had a visual memory and catalog of every single item we packed and knew without a doubt that there were no bowls. I searched the canvas orientation bag that was left for Soren. It had his staff handbook, a school cap, some pens and note pads, and……. a mug! We were in business. Still no spoon, but we had a receptacle at least.
I opened the oatmeal packet into the mug, poured the milk (it was indeed milk), and then tried to solve the problem of the spoon. I checked out our McGyver tool set I brought just in case. It had scissors, tweezers, wrench, and knife, but, alas, no spoon. It was time to get creative. What can we fashion like a spoon? I searched my backpack from the plane ride. I found some cookies that were served with our meals that no one wanted. The three cookies were packaged and stacked in a soft plastic tray. Okay – let’s see what we can do here. I took the trey, the size of my palm, and squished it to create a scoop-like implement. I was able to stir the oatmeal and microwave it. The real test was if the “spoon” would melt in the cooked oatmeal. I tested it out and was able to get a semi-decent bite-worthy scoop out of the oatmeal. I handed it to Nona. She asked, “What’s this?” in regards to the cookie trey. I said, “Its your spoon.” Like duh…. She didn’t even question it and dug in as if eating with a cookie wrapper were the normal thing to do in China.
I was going to wash out the mug and use it for Lars. He was watching the whole scenario. Frankly, we didn’t have any soap to wash the mug with anyway, so I would have rinsed it with my hands. He could see that things didn’t seem right about the situation and opted for eating dry cereal straight out of the package with his hands. Whatever. You’re fed aren’t you? Welcome to China.
As the kids ate at the table in the kitchen, I started thinking about how I was going to get to their school. This started with trying to figure out exactly where the school is located. We knew it wasn’t too far from our apartment campus, but really had absolutely no perspective. We assumed that I could call a cab. I found a small booklet in Soren’s orientation packet that was for using in taxi’s in Beijing. It was a spiral-bound laminated booklet that had categories like dining, emergency, entertainment, and education. I noticed that our children’s school, The British School of Beijing (BSB), was indeed listed. It had directions in English and Chinese. I could show this to the cabbie and it should work. Also included in the packet was a laminated index card that said, “Take Me to Keystone Academy” in English. This is where Soren works and the name of the campus we live on. The card also had Chinese directions on the front and back. This was the way home from anywhere I would travel in Beijing! I was feeling like I could get in a taxi with my two children and use these cards and rudimentary hand signals to communicate well enough to get to their school and back. We have been here at least 10 hours now. I should be able to manage this. Death by fire right?
Getting dressed was a little tricky this first day. We all wanted to make a good impression. Soren would be meeting his colleagues and I would be taking the children to meet their teachers and the admissions director. I settled on navy skinny jeans with an off-white billowy long-sleeved blouse with my favorite orange summer wedge sandals. I dressed the kids in uniform-look-alike gear. They wore khaki shorts, white button-downs, dark blazers, ties, black socks and shoes. They showered after they had breakfast and dressed. They looked nice. Soren was another story.
Soren was struggling to find a shirt and matching tie to wear. While all his shirts were dry-cleaned before we left and packed in a garment bag, they did not survive the journey. Many were not overly wrinkled, but bad enough that he couldn’t wear them. Not on his first official day at least. Of course, we did not have an iron or ironing board because we just arrived. He settled on a very decent outfit though, including a tie and navy blazer, and we were ready to face the day, whatever it would bring. I would manage the kids and Soren would start his new job. Go team!
We headed out the apartment door on the 7th floor and headed to the elevator. The elevator speaks in Chinese and English. “Xia Xing (hsia-hsing) -going down.” Or, “Shang Xing (shan-hsing) – going up.” It also announces the floor names. “Qi Lou (chei-low) – 7th floor.” Or, “Yi Low (e-low) first floor.”
When we got in the elevator, there was a neatly dressed tall man. We said hello and made introductions. He was the school’s Headmaster. He is English, I believe, but lived a significant portion of his life in Cape Town, South Africa. He asked how we were, “getting on.” We said it was all very lovely and that we were excited to get started. He asked where the children were headed. I told him we were off to catch a cab after breakfast to go to BSB. He said, that rather than that, he would reserve the school’s driver for us so we didn’t need to worry about navigating cabs our first day here. That was a lovely offer that I could not refuse.
We all walked into breakfast together and sat at the same table. The first breakfast was a blur to me, but I noticed that the cafeteria was huge and that they served bacon. There were not that many people up and eating this early. The administrators were there, getting off to an earlier start than some of the staff. It was nice sitting at these round tables, greeting and meeting new people in a casual and comfortable way. After breakfast, Soren went off to meetings and I met the school driver at the front gate to ride to BSB.
The drive to BSB took about 15 minutes. I was paying serious attention. I wanted to try to orient myself to the roads and landmarks as soon as possible. It seemed an easy enough drive with only a few turns. When we got to the school, there was a slight communication issue between the driver and me. I had never been to the school and it was unclear where the entrance was. He also did not know exactly where to drop me. I signaled for him to let me off at the curb by all the giant school buses. He tried to talk to me about when to pick us up. I could tell that was what he was asking. I tried to remember my Chinese numbers. But, as I soon learned, Beijing runs on military time. We were begin dropped off at 10am and I wanted picked up at 1pm – which was 13pm. I couldn’t say 13 in Chinese anyway. I can only count to five easily and have forgotten the rest. It will be one of the first lessons I try to reclaim. Somehow, we agreed that he would be back in three hours. I counted – yi (e), er (r), san – 1-2-3 and he pointed at his watch and I agreed with the number he pointed to. We both laughed at the ridiculousness of our antics and the joy of actually being able to understand each other without being able to understand each other.
As the kids and I exited the car and began walking, I realized that the entrance to the school was actually about a half a block around the corner. I also noticed that my driver was following very slowly on the road after me. He noticed that the entrance was further away and wanted to make sure he knew where to meet me. (I assumed he wanted to wait right outside the schools gate for us at pick-up.) I waved to him as we entered the campus. He smiled and waved back.
I signed in at a gate with security at an archway that opened to a circular driveway. The guards had to open the gate for vehicles, bikes, or people to get onto the campus. So far, at both of the schools, I noticed that they really know how to do security. All the security personnel on both campuses were Chinese.
I went into the school lobby. It was large, well-lit with high ceilings, and because it was the first day of school, it was crowded with what seemed like 100’s of parents. I felt like a deer in the headlights. Everyone was happy and chatting and almost all of them with heavy British accents. I approached the reception desk with Lars and Nona in tow. I said I had an appointment with the Admissions Director at 10am and that I also wanted to visit the school store to purchase uniforms.
The young ladies who worked at reception were also all Chinese. Their English was very good and they were helpful and friendly, even on this very busy day for them. I was directed to a room off of the lobby to begin shopping for uniforms. As I walked through the crowd of parents to the shop I was struck by a funny feeling. I have never been in a room with this many white people since living in Indiana.
The room that had all the uniforms was an assembly room that looked like it could also be a lunch room. It had long folding tables set up in the middle. There were a few racks of clothing in the back of the room and some makeshift dressing rooms. I went back to see what the regulations were for the kids. It was technically still summer and they were to buy and wear their summer outfits. The winter clothes were not available yet. I could have ordered these online from NY, but my kids are exceptionally scrawny and I wanted to make sure their clothes fit them first. So, we tried on a few sizes, found what we needed and made the purchase. The young women running the shop were also all Chinese. Their English was good enough to make the transactions and to figure out sizes. It was more complicated than I was prepared for. Different uniforms for different ages, seasons, teams, PE, swimming, and very strict.
The Admissions Director appeared and we left our purchases with the shop girls and headed off for our tour of Lars and Nona’s new school. The school facilities were impressive and the Admissions Director bubbly, like she should be in her line of work. The hallways and rooms were warm, bright, big, airy, colorful, and friendly. There was a huge outdoor track and soccer field, indoor swimming pool, theater, performance space, and more. I did not get the full tour. I did see a whole-school photo on the wall. It was about 6-feet long. Big school.
The kids got to poke their heads in their classrooms and see their cubbies. The timing of our tour did not allow them to see their classmates, but they did see their teachers. Lars’s teacher is Irish and Nona’s is British.
By now, it had been close to three hours. The Admissions Director dropped us off at the Chatterbox Café, a small counter and sitting area run by the PA directly off of the lobby, next to the uniform shop. There was coffee. Real coffee. (I forgot to mention that at breakfast I learned that Keystone does not serve coffee.) I met some of the PA leaders at the Chatterbox Café. Bo, a mother-of-two at the school, one boy in Lars’s class. She is Korean. I also met Charlotte. She runs the Chatterbox Café. She is British and was a physician before coming to China for her husband’s job. Now she focuses her efforts on her family and volunteers at the school. Both women were very friendly, intelligent, and seemed like most Upper Westside NY moms.
Our work at the school was complete. Lars and Nona behaved relatively well. (Only one instance when we first arrived of Nona elbowing Lars and him screaming at her to stop it – in the lobby. Then I put a little pinching pressure on the underside of Nona’s upper arm and told her to knock it off. She did.)
I bought the kids hot chocolates at the Chaterbox and I had a café Americano. When we finished, I picked up the uniform purchases and headed out of the lobby to find the driver. He was waiting outside – just for us.
We made it quickly back to Keystone and grabbed lunch in the cafeteria. Soren popped in while we were there. I definitely wanted a nap and the kids had their heads down on the tables, Nona sucking her thumb. I decided we could go up to our apartment and grab an hour and a half nap – no more. It was 2pm. We slept until 4pm and I had to really work to wake them up.
At dinner, we all went down together, around 5:30pm. It was more crowded than I had noticed at the other times. Many faculty were sitting in groups at the round tables. I have no recollection who we were sitting with or what we ate. My brain was beginning to eat itself. We must have met at least 25 new people and keeping up with the names, positions at Keystone, and where they were from was beginning to make my head swim.
Near the end of dinner, a friendly woman came over to our table and introduced herself. She said she was another “dependent” like me and she wanted to reach out. “Dependent?” I asked. She pointed to my lanyard. Our apartment key is our ID badge and it is carried in the pocket of a lanyard. We were instructed to wear it at all times while on campus. I just now noticed that Soren’s is black and says staff. Mine is green and says – dependent. The woman’s name is Munyiva and she and I joked about these tags. I said, “I have worked my entire life to make sure I am not dependent on any man.” She agreed. Before coming to China for her husband’s teaching job, she was a diplomat for Kenya. Dependent my ass.
Munyiva said there were not that many spouses on campus. We also realized that her son, Gui, and Lars and Nona would all be attending BSB together. Fantastic! They will ride the bus together. After exchanging our apartment numbers and agreeing to see each other in the morning at the bus stop, we all headed off to our apartments for the evening.
Monday Night – Our Second Night in Beijing
Soren fell asleep around 8pm. He did not have the nap that we all had. I wanted the kids to stay up as late as possible so they would sleep closer to 6am. My back and feet were starting to hurt from all the walking and lifting of luggage so I took one of Soren’s muscle relaxers. I got very drowsy. I was able to get my laptop to stream a kid’s movie through Netflix. I had to fool around though because while Google Chrome worked earlier in the day, it was slow and sluggish and seemingly unresponsive by the end of the day. I remembered that people told me that Google was a no-go in China and that I might need to get a different email address other than a gmail account or have some other workaround tools. So, I opened up Netflix through a different browser. It worked in Safari. The kids lounged on the couch, Nona in Star Wars PJs and Lars in his BVDs with wet hair after a good shower. I sat in the chair next to the couch with my feet up on the coffee table, barely able to keep my eyes open, knowing that in the morning, I would regret falling asleep this early. I tried to pay attention to the show they chose, Despicable Me, but I had seen it one too many times already. I played a search and find game on my Kindle. The children were not that tired since they napped in the afternoon. I was crossing my fingers that they would have a good night’s sleep since we were sending them off for an entire day of school in the morning only 36 hours after arriving in China.
To keep from falling asleep, I decided to busy myself getting the kids clothes ready for school. Remarkably and unintended, I found a sharpie packed in my pencil case and was able to label their clothes.
Their uniforms we purchased earlier in the day were individually packaged in crunchy clear plastic. I removed Nona’s skirt – a kilt really. It was the Kelly green and royal blue plaid you see catholic school girls wear. Her white shirt had a scalloped collar and short sleeves. I bought her a royal blue school tie to wear, even though they said the girls don’t wear them. Before we left the states, I emailed the admissions department at BSB and stated that Nona really did not like to wear skirts. I asked if would be a problem if she wore the boys uniform instead. I got back a very polite “no.” I was informed that once Nona wore the skirt and saw all the other girls in skirts, and that those girls were “cool” she would be okay with the skirts. I would expect this response from a Chinese school, but not the British school in 2015. (This will be the first of many gender issues that arise.) But, I did not want to make waves before we even started and bought Nona the skirts. She was actually fine with wearing them, but the principle of gender stereotypes really bothered me more than her. So, as a small measure of rebellion, I sent her in a tie.
On her first day, her class would have PE. The first unit they were covering was swimming. I packed her swimming “kit”, a one-piece bathing suit stating “AquaBears” and her swimming cap in her “house” colors – baby blue. Apparently, as in Harry Potter, this school utilizes a system of grouping children in the school according to their multi-age “house”. These houses, Romans, Saxons, Vikings, and Normans, would compete against each other throughout the year. Too bad that Lars and Nona are in competing houses. Add this to their sibling rivalry. I wonder how this will turn out during the competitions and what type of competitions they will have.
For Lars, I opened up the packages for his very unattractive navy poly-blend shorts and his equally hideous powder-blue polo with a navy color, sporting the school logo on the upper left pocket area. This, accompanied with the required black socks and black shoes, rounded out his outfit. School uniforms can be attractive. I have seen some cute ones. That is not the case at this school. Someone joked that it was the uniform worn by the drummer in ACDC- the English schoolboy look. I’ll have to google that image – when I’m not in China. I labeled Lars’s clothes and laid them out on his dresser for morning. He did not have PE on his first day so I did not open any more packages.
My feet were really hurting a lot by now. I had developed Planter fasciitis in my right foot before leaving the states. I had been so busy cleaning my house, taking garbage to the landfill, and packing, I had not had time to properly care for or rest the injury. Of course, add to that travelling, lugging around all the bags, and moving, I was beginning to feel the full effect of pushing myself too far. I was shuffling around the apartment in my burgundy slippers I got on the airplane, limping and feeling like a zombie, but determined to stay awake.
I remembered that the children needed to pack their own snack for school. I brought snacks on the plane and thankfully had some leftover. I packed each of them two Nature’s Promise Honey and Oats granola bars and a cheese and crackers packet. I had some zip-lock bags I had used to pack jewelry in my luggage. I was able to reuse them for snack bags. I wrote their name on the outside with the sharpie.
I checked the time. 8:35pm. I asked Nona how much longer in the movie. She said it was half over. I asked what that meant. Lars said about 45 more minutes. Ugh! I was so sleepy. The muscle relaxers were working on my back, but my foot pain was an injury, not a sore muscle. Lars got bored with the movie and started playing games on his iPod Touch. I told him to go to his bed and play there until the movie was over. I couldn’t stand to hear the game sounds along side the movie dialogue.
Strangely, it was around this time, with 20 minutes left in the longest movie ever it seemed to me, the internet stopped working. The video froze and streaming came to a halt. A little spinning clock appeared on the screen telling us the percentage of streaming left. It jumped from 20% to 50% and back to 14%. We held out for about 5 minutes this way and then I told her to shut it off, brush her teeth and to go lay down in bed. (It will be another two weeks before we are able to reclaim Netflix and Hulu, and then only sparingly.)
I checked in on Lars, told him to turn off the iPod. I snuggled with him for about a minute – all I could muster. He was tired enough and I knew he would fall asleep soon. It was close to 9pm. I went in to Nona’s room and helped her get settled in bed and snuggled about the same length of time with her. She was tired. I limped around the apartment, shutting off all the lights, bolted the door, and finally made it to lay down. Soren was deep in sleep. I was hoping a good night’s sleep would help his back since he had a full day of work facing him in the morning. If he had to take those muscle relaxers while suffering from jet lag, I was not sure how he would stay awake enough to teach.
We made it through our first full day. The kids are ready to start school, Soren is ready to teach, I am ready to buy spoons and bowls.
Coming up: Taking a took-took, British sports lingo (football for instance), and IKEA — all in Beijing