Learning to count in the Forbidden City
When I arrived in Beijing, the only words I knew were “ni hao,” “zaijian” and “xie xie,” which I found were enough to navigate Jenny Lou’s. After a week, however, I had to venture out, and so I went to the Forbidden City, simply because it was one of those places on our list of things to see.
We piled into a taxi, my husband up front chatting in Chinese with our driver, and me in the back with 1-year-old Kyra in my lap between our two boys, each at a window. I sat there, alternating between worry that I couldn’t grab all three seatbelt-less kids in case of an accident and annoyance that I couldn’t understand what was being said up front.
When our taxi arrived at Tian’anmen, I was overwhelmed by the crush of humanity. Half of Beijing seemed to have surrounded us, and I couldn’t understand a word they were saying. I felt like a kid as I rushed after my husband, afraid to lose my translator in the crowd. Everywhere there were curious eyes staring, fingers pointing, cameras flashing. Tour groups approached to talk to us. They pointed at curly-haired Aidan, at blue-eyed big brother Shay. They chatted with Kyra, who babbled right back from her perch in her stroller. She seemed to understand them. I didn’t.
Late in the afternoon, my husband disappeared into a cafe to buy drinks for our now-whiny kids. We waited for him outside, shrugging our shoulders when people attempted to talk to us. Soon enough, I noticed a pattern emerging in the words. As they pointed at the kids, everyone asked “yi, er, san?” And then pointed at me, questioning.
So that’s it, I thought. They’re counting my kids. They want to know if they are all mine. I tried an answer. I pointed at my kids, slowly saying “yi, er, san,” then pointed at myself. My audience was overjoyed. People clapped, even. I’m not sure if they were pleased that I understood them or pleased at the thought of three little kids glued to one mama. But by the time my husband returned, warm fizzy drinks in hand, I was becoming quite a pro.
“Yi, er, san,” I’d repeat casually, as if speaking Chinese were the easiest thing in the world. I grabbed a drink and waved at the cameras like a movie star. “Zaijian,” I said breezily over my shoulder, before pushing Kyra’s stroller straight into a pile of bricks, leaving my audience laughing.
Since that humid day last August, I’ve gotten a bit better at Chinese. I can say, “I have three children.” I can also say, “These three children are mine.” On particularly bad days, I can even wail, “Why do I have three children?” One problem: Apparently, though three seemed like a good number to me, and despite the fact that we’d recently given away everything we owned that was baby-related, turns out we are soon going to have another baby.
A fourth child. We won’t fit into a cab anymore, seatbelt or no.
And so, here I am, pregnant again, and this time in China. I have a husband who works too much. I have three kids who whine too much. Most evenings, my house is louder than a construction zone as I try to direct traffic: You! In the bath! You there! Pick up those toys! Kyra, what do you have in your mouth? Come back here!
There’s no getting around the fact that I’m a middle-aged mother of three (and a half). But out in the wide world, sometimes I still feel like a child. Sometimes I count with my fingers. Sometimes I want to stomp my feet and cry because no one understands me. And I’ve been known to turn giddy with excitement when I see the golden arches of McDonald’s.
But on the plus side, well, I’m in China. People applaud when I count to three. They take my picture and smile when I perform cute antics. And strangers are unfailingly kind when I stop them for help. Then there’s Beijing itself, with the Great Wall and the Blue Zoo and those other places that most Americans never get to see.
Who knows? Come May, I may have learned to count to four.