Spring has sprung. Okay, not quite. But the weather has gotten significantly nicer recently, and Owen and I have been spending a lot of time in the park across the street. It’s not much to write home about, really just a waypoint along the UNESCO World Heritage West Lake Scenic Area™. But #6 Gong Yuan (public park) is where it’s at for us these afternoons. Here is how it usually plays out.
We arrive, Owen (assisted by mom) walking/lurching where he pleases, which is usually straight to the bed of clovers. He proceeds to rip up as many as possible and stick his hands in the dirt as deeply as he can. Soon, we are approached by a grandma and her grandchild, for whom she is charged with caring during the day while the baby’s parents are at work. [Sidenote: going to the park with a young child here is like going to a bar already drunk: it’s extremely easy to meet people and get friendly, and there are no conversational barriers whatsoever.] Grandma smiles big and forces the baby’s hand to wave at Owen, addressing him as “didi” or “gege” as the situation warrants (younger brother/older brother). (This is standard: Chinese children are taught to address everyone by their relation to them as if they were family. For instance, I am “ayi” [auntie] and every other kid in the universe is either “didi,” “gege,” “meimei,” [younger sister] or “jiejie” [you guessed it—older sister]. Pretty friendly.) After introductions, we establish the precise ages of the kids. Sometimes Owen is actually younger than the Chinese baby but has been addressed as “older brother” because he is bigger and more stable on his feet than a lot of Chinese kids his age. (I chalk this up to two reasons: Chinese babies don’t touch the floor much for their first year of life; they are mostly carried around until they turn one. Also, poor nutrition is a factor: babies eat hot dogs and sugary juice-milk, and our own ayi tells us that Chinese babies primarily eat zhou, or congee [white rice porridge].)
The next thing that happens is that the Chinese baby, if he or she is old enough, will try to jump out of grandma’s arms to get down to where Owen is gleefully destroying public property. Grandma sometimes allows this, but more often than not she lowers the baby down, shows him/her what Owen is doing, and says, “Look, the foreign baby is wearing very few clothes. Do you think he’s cold?” To which I always reply, “He’s not cold.” Then she says, “Are you sure he isn’t cold? I am wearing so many layers, and so is my baby. We Chinese people wear lots of layers.” “Yes, I know,” I say, “but we Americans aren’t afraid of the cold. Also, the weather today is very comfortable! Look, he’s wearing more clothes than I am!” “Yes,” she replies, “Aren’t you cold? You are wearing so few clothes. We Chinese people wear lots of clothes.” And so on.
Now, from across the park, come a herd of exotic wild animals: young women bounding (or, rather, tottering on 5-inch heels) towards us, armed with camera phones and false eyelashes. Their voices hit a register that only a dog can hear as they approach, skipping and clutching each other’s hands as they squeal, “Oh, my god, the foreign baby!!!!!!” They ask each other excitedly how old he might be, and when I tell them, they burst into peals of shrieking laughter, “You speak Chinese!?!?!?!? Oh my god, your baby is SO CUTE, his eyes are SO BIG, his skin is SO WHITE! Please let me hold him!!!!!” Okay, I say, unable to resist their charms. Again they are reduced to a fit of giggles as each takes her turn holding Owen, flashing the peace sign, planting kisses on his cheeks, and having her picture taken at least 10 times until she is satisfied with the result. Owen is patient for a short time, but soon enough there are flowers to be picked, and he gets squirmy. The lovelies kiss his cheeks one last time, then skip away, flipping through their newly-acquired shots of the waiguo xiaohai.
We are alone for a moment, and then an older kid comes up. It’s a four-year-old girl with rotted-out baby teeth, and she kicks Owen, grabs the rattle he’s clutching, and hits him with it. He doesn’t flinch (his head is actually made of concrete), but her mother comes running over and smacks her. The girl yells, then hits Owen again. The mom hits the girl again. The girl gets dragged away and yelled at, then returns a moment later with a toy. Hits Owen with her toy, gets hit by her mom. Gets her toy taken away. Her mother prods her verbally now, imploring, “Xiao waiguoren, ke bu ke ai? Ke bu ke ai? KE BU KE AI?” The small foreigner, is he cute or not cute? Cute or not cute? CUTE OR NOT CUTE?
“Ke…ai?” the girl answers, tentatively.
And now we’ve made a friend.
Note: These pictures were taken on a day where it rained in the morning, thus making the park unacceptably wet/cold. We ventured out there, only to find it completely deserted. Not a grandma or bundled kid in sight. While we were there, Owen made friends with the lone woman sweeping up puddles; she was very, very concerned that his shoes were wet.