She asked me how things were going with Guo Jian and her eyes glinted with worry and concern (and maybe a bit of pity, but only the kind that comes from a big heart, not the patronizing kind.) She is my friend here in Beijing, but she is not from here. Like me, she is from the West—a Western wife and mother with Western ideas.
Since that day of a shared play date between our toddlers and a chance to catch up as friends and mothers, she and her family have packed up and left to return to their home country. It’s a common occurrence. Since moving here, I’ve said so many goodbyes that it’s become a characteristic of my Beijing ex-pat life.
The difference is that I’m married to China. Most ex-pats aren’t. Most are here on work contracts or as “trailing spouses” while their partners are on work contracts for a set period of time. I am entwined with this culture via family and children, each holding two cultures inside of their very genetic code. I will be here indefinitely. And one day, I will be back in my home country indefinitely. On days when I am tired of China and its contradictory ways, I fantasize about that day in the future when my husband will say that he is “married to Canada.” It will come.
After I posted my last blog, I received a lot of concerned inquiries like my friend’s. It seems I really pushed some buttons and now you’re all worried about me. Ironically, I have been so busy with various jobs and school and demanding childcare that I haven’t had enough time to write a follow-up blog to put those worries to rest… until now.
The thing is, in that moment of her glinting eyes, I didn’t really know how to answer her. I was still mad at him from the morning, but I hadn’t been mad in awhile, so I knew the leftover anger wasn’t fully representative of the overall story. I stammered and I responded strangely. I rambled.
I wish I could have painted these images:
Kids crawling over him in bed on rotating airplane rides, their giggles as engines, wee limbs extended like wings, my smile as pure as clouds above the smog line.
An infant in my lap. I’m sitting facing away from the screen, typing one-handed, waist twisted, and suddenly the infant is removed, taken away and changed (though a few diaper protocol questions are shouted over), and then the infant is returned fifteen minutes later with a clean diaper. Timed perfectly with completion of my computer task.
An unspoken absorption of toddler bath duties: I am upstairs getting the baby to sleep and I hear sudsy giggles. Bedtime will happen on time thanks to bath time happening without me. Twice this week. Hurray!
I watch him spin her around the living room like precious glass and I know there will be no breaking point. There’s too much love here. He urges me up and we sandwich hug her, much to her delight.
Is any partnership ideal?
(And, I must concede: I’m not easy to live with.)
Before that toddler play date—the one with my friend’s caring eyes and questioning—I was angry at my husband’s reluctance to care for his son on his day off. At first, I took the baby with me. He hadn’t wanted to care for him and said so directly. His response made me so rage-ridden, like a rotting log is pest-ridden, that I couldn’t speak out in protest. Sometimes rage creates lockjaw. Wordless fumes. The two kids and I started down the stairs, black wings of silent anger billowing out behind me.
There are 84 steps and I went down about 30 of them before I spun around and charged the crew back upwards again, stormed back into the apartment, unbuckled the carrier, lifted the baby out and handed him directly to his father’s chest, like I was forcefully handing off a basketball. Then, with the fumes ignited, I took off the baby carrier and hurled it across the room. It’s so light that it just fluttered to the floor in a very unsatisfying woosh, which prompted my voice to crash out of the previously locked gates of my jaw:
“No. I won’t put up with this! He is your child. You are not a child. Well, you certainly aren’t MY child.”
Black wings flapped me out then, as I collected the wide-eyed toddler from the apartment’s entrance and slammed the door behind me.
Not my finest moment.
Rage is poisonous.
Lucky for me, I have married someone who appreciates fire.
So, when my friend asked me how we were doing, I wanted to say, “He’s a lazy ass and I can’t stand his entitled bullshit!” But, I didn’t say that. No, in fact, I swallowed hard and shared a fragmented overview of the whole story: the frustrated moments and also the hope, the improvements, the growth.
Growth #1: I only got one voice message while I was out saying, “He’s still not sleeping.” I didn’t phone back.
Growth #2: Quietly note that he had not phoned his mother to come relieve him, a previous habit that incensed his wife.
Growth #3: When I got home, he was proud of his ability to get his son to sleep.
He said, “Paz and I are getting to know each other more and more every day.”
“So you are learning how to care for him better! Great!” I replied, and then pulled out a Chinese idiom: “熟能生巧 Practice makes perfect!”
A few minutes later, he said to me quietly: “Please don’t throw things anymore.”
“I won’t throw things if you won’t be a lazy parent,” I snapped back, flames not fully doused. But, he’s right. Raging isn’t the answer; patience is.
Growth #4: Over lunch, he fed Echo. No prompting.
Then we had a bed date with the kids and the four of us hung out for an hour on the wide lower bunk of Echo’s “big bed” while she stuffed Lego blocks up our pant legs and Paz fished them out with a drooling grin.
This past week was our 5th year wedding anniversary. We actually had a date with a DVD. It was so nice to just sit on the couch and stop working for two hours. Complete joy.
Both kids slept through the whole film. That’s probably the biggest growth of all.
The point is that he deserves a bit of redemption. He is quick to take the easy, lazy road—a product of a generation of single children who are beyond spoiled—but he also knows it’s not the high road. I can’t bridge an entire cultural divide here, but I also can’t sacrifice my entire worldview about parenting and gender roles as a result of an overbearing culture, even if it is the one in which I am now living. I’ve made that abundantly clear.
So, may that set your minds at ease. I’m okay. I’m a person of autonomous choices and I choose to be here. I’ll make it. I’ll get through.
And you know, it’s all fodder for great art.
P.S. Rachel, you’ll be missed!
This post first appeared on Ember Swift’s site on October 25, 2014
Ember Swift is a Canadian songwriter, musician, writer, cyclist, green thumb, cupcake fan and proud mom living in Beijing with her husband, Guo Jian, and their daughter Echo (born January 2012). They are expecting a second child at the end of 2013. Ember writes professionally for several print and online publications (including beijingkids), as well as three blogs through her own site: www.emberswift.com. She is also an internationally touring musician and performs regularly in China with her all-girl local band. She has released 11 independent musical albums over the years but, these days, prefers to be with her family rather than on the road touring. She continues to release her music online and hopes to have completed her memoir project by the end of 2014.
Photos: familymwr, Derek Gavey (flickr)