Teaching English at a Chinese school is a fascinating experience. One that has inspired more hypothetical blog-posts than I will ever care to write.
This, however, I feel pressed to share.
This adorable worksheet was created by my colleague, from whom I gleefully stole it to torture my own class with. We had just read the children’s picture book Olivia (which I recommend, if you’re not already familiar with) and the point of this activity was to have our students use English words to describe activities they would like to do with the porcine heroine, Olivia.
Cute, right? I particularly like “yo-yo fighting” and “eat ramen”.
And then there was this one. Look carefully at those detailed little pictures.
Alec loves his ayi. He perks up when he hears the creak of squeaky hinges at the usual time each school-day morning, breath coming in excited little gasps and one chubby hand already waving before she has finished closing the door behind her. She calls out, “Babaa?” and he answers with one if his breathing-in happy-squeals and an enormous gummy smile.
(He has teeth, to my great relief. They are just taking as long to make an appearance above the gumline as they took to make it that far. Which is just fine, as those gums remain as pinkily charming as ever.)
Up until two days ago, it was clear how much he wanted me to stay. Enthusiastic and cheerful as his greetings to the nanny were, they would be offered with the fingers of one hand tightly fisted in my shirt collar or pant leg or the hem of my skirt, and if all the steps to getting him ready to go out the door weren’t complete, it was me he wanted to walk him through them. The ayi would pick out play clothes; he would run to me, demanding that my hands be the ones to dress him. The straps of his stroller weren’t yet snapped and buckled; I had to be the one to do it, the nanny pushed away (with a bashful smile on a good day and a squawk of angry protest on a grumpy one) if she tried. These rituals completed, he would all but ignore me as twenty-three stories melted away in the elevator, playing Chinese peek-a-boo that I don’t pronounce properly instead, and wave me off with not a hint of regret once we pushed into the mostly-fresh city-air of The Great Outside.
They make their rounds of our neighborhood (chat with all of the local security guards, meet up with three different baby play-groups (that I know of) at various communal courtyards and street corners, frequent at least three different playgrounds) while I go off to do my best with a bunch of other people’s kids for a while.
He is always happy, and happy to see me, when I come back.
But two days ago. Two days ago nothing had changed; there was the simultaneous lifting of lips and eyebrows as the front doors squeaked, the grasp at my shirt collar (he was balanced on my hip, trying to catch my toothbrush as I finished up my own morning routine) and the delighted intake of breath. I spat and rinsed and headed into the main room to greet our ayi, who met us with tiny color-coordinated shorts and shirt in hand (it’s strange what a relief it is to me that she always chooses outfits I would pick myself). And then my world tilted, just a little.
She called, “Babaa?” and held out her hands. And Alec, unlike every other morning, lunged–straight for her, jumping towards her arms and right out of mine, and she had to take a hasty half-step forward to catch him–I froze, hovering with both arms still extended, watching my baby slide one little arm around another woman’s neck, babbling excitedly all the while.
She dressed him and he tilted his chin waaay back to look up at her as she slid chubby limbs through soft sleeves, face alight and full affection lilting the tunes of both their words, none of which I could understand.
I went to school with a lump in my throat.
I prayed for this. Just like I prayed for all of us to enjoy this strange new China-life.
`That prayer is being answered, too. With the occasional lump-in-the-throat.