Learning Chinese and a Poopie Diaper

I have been struggling with how to portray how I feel about my return to the Foreign Language Institute for training to top up my very stale Mandarin Chinese. Perhaps my most difficult issue was how to explain how hard this has been for me without sounding like a majorly sad grump. Because I will tell you, I have had some majorly sad and grumpy days.

For example, I had my first tear-stained breakdown. Yep, it happened. Thankfully it did not occur in front of any of my colleagues but rather in front of a member of the Chinese Department staff as I tried to explain my very real fears that I will not pass the Chinese test in January. She was very kind and told me not to worry, which only made me suspect she has no idea how badly I speak Chinese.

I also threw a pen in class. I am not proud of it. I could not help but think later that it while it was probably too mild a throw to make it in to some kind of “Diplomats Behaving Badly” montage, it most certainly was not one of my finer moments. I certainly did not make a conscious decision to throw the pen but after feeling browbeaten to create one too many a Chinese sentence in a grammatical structure I simply did not understand with a limited vocabulary of half-remembered words and phrases learned as recently as 2002…and then having the teacher cut me off two words into my response, I had had it. And the pen launch sequence commenced.

One of my biggest struggles has been finding a time to study. I tried studying in the evenings as C watched a DVD and then after she went to bed. Firstly, you parents out there must be laughing your socks off imagining me trying to study with a toddler in the room. Yeah, it went about as well as you imagine. “Mommy, change DVD, change DVD, change DVD.” “Mommy, snack, snack, snack!” “Mommy, mommy, mommy, mommy, mommy…” Secondly, my attempts at raising a jet setting night owl toddler have been too successful and I was too tired to do anything after she went to bed because it was also my bedtime.

Then I decided to wake up early in the morning, around 5 am, study until C woke up around 7:30, take her to child care and then drive on to the training institute for a little more study until class began at 10:40. Except on day one of this brilliant plan I woke up at 5:30 and I heard the sweet little call of “mommy?” at six.


Plan #3 has been to wake up at 5:30, get C to daycare by 6:45, drive to the training institute, arriving around 7:35, then studying in the cafeteria until class at 10:40. I study again for at least an hour in between my morning class and afternoon class. I also listen to Chinese in the car either to or from the training institute. I downloaded some popular Chinese songs and language learning podcasts, burned the textbook and other dialogues to disc, and purchased the soundtrack to Frozen in Mandarin. We are expected at the very least to study for 8 hours a day including our 5 hours of classroom time. This schedule means I can generally manage to get those three extra hours in. This has been mildly successful, at least in relative terms.

Yet every single day I eat a huge helping of humble pie in class and continue to harbor serious doubts about my readiness to test in January.

This morning I set about to take C to swimming class (I have at least followed through with this ONE thing from my “back in the U.S. to-do list”). I got myself dressed and her dressed. I took us out to the car and buckled C into the car seat.

Then I realized I had forgotten my towel.

[Note: I did not bring towels the first day of swim class because I expected, for some reason, they would be provided, and had to run into the nearby supermarket to buy a set of hand towels. I felt like schmuck.]

So I unbuckled C from the car seat and walked back to the apartment to get the towel and then returned to the car and buckled her back in. Only to realize I had forgotten a spare diaper.

So I unbuckled C from the car seat and walked back to the apartment to get the extra diaper and then returned to the car and began to buckle her back in. Then I smelled something unfortunate. C needed a diaper change.

<sigh> I wanted to just pack it in. I wanted to just get C out of the car and give up on the swim class at least for today and maybe forever. There was even a millisecond there I considered I might never leave the apartment again. I took a deep breath and convinced myself to keep going.

So I unbuckled C from the car seat and returned to the apartment, changed her diaper, and then returned to the car and buckled her back in.

We were late for swim class.
But we still got there and were able to participate.

This week my Chinese study has been derailed several times.

Last weekend C had a fever of 102 all day Saturday and 103 most of Sunday. Instead of being a docile and very sleepy sick person she became an extremely demanding one. Not one minute of studying that weekend. <sigh>

I arranged for my parents to watch her on Monday instead of taking her to daycare, so I actually departed home at 9:20 that day, after some haphazard studying in the apartment that morning. <sigh>

Early Wednesday morning, C woke up and demanded food. I mean she literally sat bolt upright in bed at the witching hour of 3:40 am and said “FOOD!” and would not go back to sleep until she had had some “Dora snacks” and a juice. So I let her sleep in a little and departed for daycare at 8 am. Then on the way to the daycare center that morning the low air light came on for my tires. I stopped to have them checked and every single one of them was low. <sigh>

On Thursday C woke up in the middle of the night upset, the fever was back. I gave her medicine but could not get back to sleep as I had developed a terrible stomach ache. So I called in sick and took C to the doctor. I imagined I might get a little studying done but again C would not nap, was extremely demanding, and, as an extra fun bonus, shoved an edamame bean up her nose in the afternoon. <sigh>

Right now I am feeling the best I have about Chinese in the four weeks I have been studying. I have no idea why.

On the drive back from swimming class today I thought the whole episode summed up how I feel I prepare for Chinese every day – shit happens but I AM trying.

That’s all I can do. 


Travel Mom vs. the Toddler

I love traveling, particularly international travel. In my early 20s the travel bug bit me hard and I have been finding ways and means to get myself to locales around the world ever since. After living three years in Japan teaching English, I made the decision to take a year off before graduate school and backpack solo through central, Eastern, and Southern Europe, a little of north Africa, and then parts of Asia. I had the time of my life and easily reached fifty countries visited before the age of 30. At present I could qualify for membership in the Traveler’s Century Club.

When I became pregnant more than a few people implied I would need to cut back on the travel. One friend even said she guessed I would not be making any trips for the next five years. Why, I thought, would I want to stop traveling?

I will admit it; I was a little concerned about traveling with a baby. I thought perhaps those people who had said I could not travel with baby C may have been right. Yet, I did not want to just throw in the towel without giving it a try. So when C was five months old I booked a trip over the Memorial Day weekend from Washington, DC to New Orleans. It was a direct flight, there on a regional jet, back on a larger jet. I brought three bottles, plenty of formula, and all the diapers I we would need for the trip. I brought only the baby carrier – no stroller. I cannot tell you the sense of relief and accomplishment I felt when we returned – I had done it! There was no stopping me now!

Our second trip by plane came five months later after arriving in Ciudad Juarez. This time the trip was to Northern Ireland. This required three flights (El Paso to Houston; Houston to Newark; Newark to Belfast) there and back. This time I added the stroller. Not only did I survive the flights, but I even took C on an all day tour bus from Belfast along the coast to the Giant’s Causeway and another day we took a public bus to Derry. I was doing it, really doing it! Baby C and I were officially travel buddies!

My daughter C is now 2 years and 8 months old. She holds two passports, tourist and diplomatic, and has had them since she was four months old. She has visited six countries other than the United States (Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago, the United Arab Emirates, Panama, Ireland and the United Kingdom. In the UK she has been to Northern Ireland, Manchester, Liverpool, and the Isle of Man) and at least 19 U.S. states. For her second birthday I enrolled her in the United Airlines Mileage Plus program and within five months she had earned silver status. C has got travel creds.

I do not write this to show off. It is more for me. It is a reminder that I could once do all that.

Of course I was never quite sure how things were going to go. Every time I got on a plane for the next trip, it was like traveling with a different child and/or we needed different gear. She went from needing only formula to needing snacks. She went from being content with just a few books and a single stuffie to requiring more books and stuffies and toys. I bought an iPod Touch. I admit it. I bought a one year old an iPod Touch so I could fill it with baby apps to keep her busy and me sane on our long trip to Dubai. Let me tell you C was a champ on every. single. flight.

However, you know, all good things come to an end, right? I thought it might come when she turned 2 and she could no longer travel as a lap child. Suddenly C has own seat and her own luggage allowance, but for some reason she does not as suddenly start carrying her own suitcase and walking through the airport on her own. Yet, the first several trips went pretty well, even when I had to lug the child seat to check in so we could use it while renting a car in Ireland.

But my wake-up call was coming.

So in May of this year we flew from El Paso, Texas to Manchester, England. We then caught a train to Liverpool, spent a few days there, and then took a ferry over to the Isle of Man. Are you with me so far? It is okay to think I am crazy, but stay with me because it is soon afterwards that I too realize that perhaps I am a tad too travel bold for my current status. We stayed in Douglas, the port town and capital of the Isle of Man. I take C on a bus from Douglas to Peel, on the other side of the island. We walk up the isthmus at the end of the beach to tour the incredible Peel castle (I have the stroller) and then stop for a bite to eat at a small, family-run diner. C gobbles up her fried egg and a few veggies. Then she looks at me oddly and throws it up all over me, the chair, the floor. That was unfortunate. Luckily the woman who runs the place hardly blinks and eye and shows me the ladies room where I can clean C and myself up.

C falls asleep in the stroller as I head down to the House of Manannan, a museum focusing on the maritime history and culture of the Isle. I figure the time to visit is while C is fast asleep in the stroller. I have already put the lunch incident behind me. Kids get sick, no worries. The first 30 minutes are fine as C sleeps soundly. Then she wakes up and wants out of the stroller to walk. She promptly throws up again. And again. Luckily a helpful museum employee wanders by and helps find me some paper towels to clean things up. Good thing I have some extra towels for when C throws up yet again 10 minutes later. Time to make our exit.

On the way to the bus station we have another incident. Then at the bus station. Then on the bus. Then once off the bus in Douglas. I cannot fathom how my daughter has anything left in her little stomach. I am trying to stay off my own rising panic. I feel incredibly ill-equipped to handle this. I can navigate bus and train and boat schedules in foreign countries, but throw in my own sick child and I feel exposed as a fraud, and even worse, a terrible, no-good, very bad mother.

I get C back to the hotel so she can throw up a few more times in the comfort of our room (are you kidding me?!). I think of the following day when we will wake up early to take a taxi to the ferry terminal, a ferry to Liverpool, a bus to the train station, a train to Manchester, and then some form of transport to our hotel. I appreciate that I may not have thought this through all that well.

But the travel gods smile upon me and C recovers. I am given a reprieve. We take the taxi, ferry, bus, train, and taxi the next day, check into our hotel and then head to the National Football Museum. For the next, and last, two days of our trip though we stay at the hotel. It is cold and wet; I have come down with my own stomach bug. I feel an itty bitty bit glum that we will not be able to visit the Manchester United museum, but I also sense that this rest time is not only needed but has been imposed by the travel gods. It is my comeuppance.

These days I find it tiring just to go to the supermarket with my daughter. If we have to stop at more than one store then I probably need a nap afterwards. I look ahead to our flight to Shanghai, China in January and wonder how I will survive it. I shake my head. A rueful chuckle escapes my lips.

I have not yet conceded. I am calling this merely a travel hiatus. This is a slowdown, a drawback, but not an end. It helps that I am in language training now where taking leave is generally prohibited. I can circle my wagons, consider my options, and make some adjustments. It will be some time before I attempt another “Isle of Man” but we will travel again. I promise myself.

Nation’s Tri: The Third Wheel

I belong to a global running group, a community of Foreign Service people who try to take their running on the road, wherever they happen to be. They may be trying to fit in runs in baking hot UAE summers (where you run after sunset when it’s a “cool” 105 degrees) or try to make friends with the treadmill when in places where running outside is verboten or make unexpected stops in locales where herds of animals may cross their path. We are a dedicated bunch of crazy runners. Not necessarily fast runners – though we do have a few who place in their respective races – but committed.

Waaaaaaay back in February or March of this year I responded to a post on our group page asking for a person to run the 10k portion in a triathlon team to take place September 7 in Washington, DC. Yeah THAT September 7, you know, the first Sunday back in the DC area after a whirlwind 60 days of home leave and my first week of Chinese training.

So it seemed like a GREAT idea! I could use it to jump start my running when back in Northern Virginia. This couple, whom I had never met, also would have just moved to DC for training the weekend before. It was PERFECT, right? I mean, that’s the word springing to your mind too, I’m sure! I replied immediately. Pick me! Pick me PLEASE! And they did.

Fast forward six months or so… I have run a half marathon in South Dakota a few weeks before, yet it already feels much longer. I am stressed and tired about the start of language training. I book a hotel in DC for the Saturday night – yes, a hotel away from my hotel, because the logistics of getting up at the butt crack of dawn to drive to DC and try to find parking seemed too daunting. My mom stays with myself and C because I have yet to spend a night away from her and I am determined not to have the first night be for this triathlon. My ulcerative colitis continues to plague me and this 10k runs through urban DC (as opposed to a heavily forested canyon in SD), i.e. few if any trees to hide behind should my UC make a pit stop necessary. I have not met this couple I’m running with. Hmmm…this seems a little less perfect than I originally thought.

Thankfully meeting up with my Tri mates proves easy. Though completely unplanned, we find each other the first day at the Foreign Service Institute. We run into each other unplanned each day after that. Even at the packet pick up we find each other at the hotel entrance without arranging a thing. It was rather uncanny.

It is a very good thing we had that going for us because the organization of the packet pick up and staging areas left much to be desired. Racers arriving to pick up packets with their bicycles are turned away as bicycles are not allowed in the hotel (at a triathlon?!). Volunteers at the event appear unable to answer questions. Our cyclist rides his bike down to the transition area to set up only to be stranded down there as the returning shuttles to the hotel stop at 6 pm, although the website and expo announcements say they will run until 7 pm. Then the skies open up and rain pours down. We decide to eat dinner at our respective hotels and meet up the following morning for the next to last shuttle for the start line, departing at 6 am.

That night my mother – a dear woman who agreed to watch Chloe while I run – snores with the force of a fog horn.  (I am sorry mom, you have been outed on Facebook and now in my blog) She tried not to, I’ll give her that. She brought a nose strip, yet it did nothing to stem the tide; I could not sleep. Around midnight, desperate to get some zzzzzs I had an epiphany. I then dragged a pillow and a comforter into the bathroom and set up bed in the bathtub. Yes, the bathtub. Surprisingly, I slept pretty well (I am 5’5” if you are wondering).

I awoke to the news that the swim portion of the race had been cancelled due to a sewage spill into the Potomac River resulting from the previous evening’s heavy rain. After wrenching myself from my bathtub cocoon I head over to the race hotel across the street at a quarter to six. Unfortunately, disorganization continued. Despite being on the next to last shuttle, departing the hotel at six am with the race not starting until 7:15, the bus could not drop participants at the actual start location, just nearby. At the event emcees announced that the “swimmers” would still run into the transition area barefoot. Unfortunately for many relay participants, this was not announced on the website along with the cancellation of the swim portion and some had simply not shown up. Our swimmer was in a dress – albeit a sporty one – and so lined up barefoot with the other “swimmers” to run 500 yards to pass off the timing piece to our cyclist.

Cyclist and I receive conflicting information as to how to reach the hand-off area. One volunteer told us to head in one direction where we met another volunteer who told us to go back where we had come from. We finally just went around both of them, the long way, to find the place, where we waited. And waited. And waited. Though the event started at 7:15, our “swimmer” did not begin her swim-run until 8:23! She was in wave 23, yet between each numbered wave there was also a “named” wave. The first cyclists had returned before 8:15.

At least the weather was perfect for cycling and running. It was cool and overcast – completely different from the near 90 degree and sunny weather of the day before. Still, I had been waiting around to run since 6:15 and with the breeze I felt a little chilled; it was a relief to finally start running around 9:45. Then suddenly, it was all alright. The course was well marked and the volunteers prepared. I ran slowly, without music, my mind occupied with many memories of my previous life in DC. I have run many times in West Potomac Park along Haines Point. I looked across the Potomac to Fort McNair, where I worked as a Research Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies. Across the Potomac in another direction stands Bolling Air Force Base, where I also worked as a defense analyst. The course also covered streets where I trained for and ran the Marine Corps Marathon, my one full marathon to date. I had missed DC.

All in all, I am glad I participated, though I have decided I will not run more races in DC this brief time we are here, and possibly no other races at all after my half in early October. The time is just too short and the logistics for race participation a little too complicated. As a single parent studying Mandarin Chinese in preparation to work in Shanghai starting early next year, I only have so many hours in the day, only so much free time in a week. I need to recognize my limitations.

Hey, and I did it! Right? In the end I think the best part of it was meeting this other Foreign Service couple, also with a young daughter, serving their country, living abroad, and with a passion for running (and swimming and biking) wherever they happen to be.

Back to School

I am too old for this.

We are told in our language school orientation at the Foreign Service Institute NOT to think this way. We should have an open mind. We should be accepting of everyone’s learning style and pace, including our own. We are reminded this is our job right now. Not only are we being paid to learn a language but the government is investing a lot of money in us to do so. The State Department is counting on us to learn our respective languages to help the United States achieve its diplomatic goals.

But geez, I feel too old for this.

I know I am intelligent and I can do this. I have learned languages before: Spanish, Chinese, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, and Tagalog. The former three I learned over time and sporadically in long formal classes; the latter three with informal classes and living in country. And yes, you did read Chinese. So not only am I proven to learn a language but I am proven to learn THIS language.

On the first day the highlight of orientation for me was when a woman from the testing unit announced, in a hilarious and inspired presentation, that the test would henceforth be changed. No longer would we be required to speak at length on topics such as nuclear nonproliferation, Congressional term limits, or global warming and yet be unable to buy groceries or conduct visa interviews when we touchdown in our respective countries. In Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, I long waited for the when after approving or denying a visa the applicant would then turn to me and say, well, now that is done, could you tell me your thoughts on labor unions? Needless to say, that day never arrived. A collective sigh and inward cheer was palpably felt throughout the orientation room. The word is that we will actually be tested on conversations related to ourselves, life in our destination country, and our actual jobs. This is thrilling news.

The classes thus far have been great. The Chinese department has developed a class specifically geared toward those of us who have had Chinese in the past. Currently there are 14 of us in this program. I appreciate this immensely as I was in a similar situation when I studied Spanish and the department initially accommodated four of us with our own class. Then after four weeks we were scattered to the wind, placed in other classes, and any advantage we may have had was lost.

The class times fly by. When the teacher tells us to take a 10 minute break or he/she will see us next time, I am surprised. I have had just a few times in class where I felt too much on the spot, but my classmates and the teachers are supportive. Preparation is key though, and I am going to have to step things up.

I have run the gamut of language learning emotions this week. I have felt inspired and insecure. I have felt confident and uncertain. I have felt committed and flustered. I have been energized and exhausted. It has only been four days.

Lots of people would be thrilled to switch places with me; I am being paid to study a foreign language. I completely understand; it’s an incredible benefit and opportunity. I recognize that intrinsically. But studying a language is HARD y’all! I know at some point in the next 20 weeks I will cry as a result of trying to cram Mandarin into my brain, and remove the Spanish that now resides there. I may cry more than once. I am hoping to avoid doing this in front of others as it is not considered a great diplomatic skill to burst into tears.

I try to give myself a pep talk. “Look, last time you were here studying you were pregnant, had the baby, and then had a newborn. And you did it! You rock!”

“That’s all true. I do rock. Wait; now I have a toddler…I cannot see how that is going to make studying any easier.” As expected, C is already proving a formidable obstacle to my language learning.

It is very important I realize this process is not easy for anyone and that everyone has things going on in their lives while trying to study a foreign language. I remember 2-3 years ago while studying Spanish pregnant and then as a single mom of a newborn; I was SO tired. Yet one day I saw a woman, pregnant AND on crutches, studying a foreign language. And about a week later I met a woman on the shuttle bus who was pregnant, had a small child, her husband still at their previous post, AND undergoing chemotherapy, studying a foreign language. Yeah, I try to remember those women and their fortitude when I am feeling sorry for myself. I also try to remember that for everyone that was visibly struggling with something there are those struggling and juggling things not readily apparent. Just like me.

One week down, eighteen to go.* Hopefully I am not too too old for this.



*turns out unlike during my Spanish training, the Christmas week off is not being counted as part of our training time this go around. Yay!