A Beijing wake-up call
Remember when you were little and your parents could fix everything? They knew all the answers, too. Mine could tell me why the sky was blue or where ice cream came from – all the little things I needed to find out, they already knew. I know now that being up on that pedestal is part of what makes parenting so hard: You are always on call to scare away monsters, kiss away boo-boos and solve all the big problems of the world.
When we moved to Beijing, my pedestal started to wobble a bit. We threw ourselves into this new country, this new culture, and in many ways I felt more lost than the kids. Overnight, I found I didn’t have all of the answers anymore. Questions that had once been so easy to quell suddenly loomed large. No, son, I don’t know what that road sign means. No, I’m not sure how to get to the grocery store. I don’t know when we’ll have a car again. I’m not sure when we’ll see your grandparents again. Always the answer was: I don’t know.
Even something as simple as a visit to the toy store became fraught with confusion. My son spent his allowance on a shiny new toy, but when we got it home, we discovered it was broken. So we took it back. Back in the States, returning a broken toy would’ve been a cinch, but here, not so. I struggled to find the words in Chinese, managing to come up with only “My son bought this, and it doesn’t…” before I trailed off. The shopkeepers conferred. No, they told me, they didn’t have another one. But if I’d come back in a week, maybe they could fix it. This wasn’t acceptable to my son. He wanted his toy now. Back home, I could’ve fixed this. But here, I stood, mute. I didn’t have the words for “Let me talk to the manager,” or “I want my money back” or anything else useful in the situation. So I left, silent and frustrated, promising my son that we’d return in a week’s time to try again.
But I felt the weight of my weakness. I couldn’t solve his problem. Heck, I couldn’t even talk. The pedestal trembled.
“Mom, how many dollars is 25 yuan?”
“I don’t know.”
“Mom, will they have chicken nuggets at this restaurant?”
“I don’t know.”
“Mom, can I get chocolate milk? How do you say ‘chocolate milk’ in Chinese?” I don’t know. I don’t know. I really don’t know.
It’s other things, too. It’s trying to keep up with your children as their language skills outpace yours. It’s tentatively learning to ride a bike again while they jump the speed bumps effortlessly.
The thing about that pedestal is, while you’re on it, it’s easy to say things like “Because I’m the mom – that’s why.” From way up there, it’s easier to command a kid’s respect, to channel his belief that you know everything. But the first time your child sees you wobble and ram into a tree on your new bike, the first time he sees you struggle to order food in a restaurant, the first time you let your guard down or let a curse word slip out, the illusion of mastery disappears.
It’s been a learning process for this family of mine. I’m learning to let go, to admit to the kids that I haven’t a clue, but that I’m willing to try, even if I look foolish. It’s okay if my oldest son laughs at my Chinese pronunciation – in fact, it gives him a certain confidence, a sense that he can find ways to excel on his own. I hope that when my children watch me lose my way once in awhile, they’ll learn that it’s okay to be flustered, that it’s normal not to have all the answers.
After all, there are still things I can do that they need. I can check homework. I can read Richard Scarry books. I can blow up a whoopee cushion. And I make a mean batch of chocolate chip pancakes.
Is all of this enough? Is it okay for me to be less-than-perfect, as long as I’m having fun trying? What if I just jump off this pedestal of mine? Will they still look back on these years and be somewhat awestruck by me, their amazing mom?
I don’t know. But I guess we’ll be finding out together.