When we moved into our apartment nearly a year ago, we were happy to meet a baby just a little older than Owen, who was introduced to us as Xiao Hu (“little Hu,” a common way to call someone surnamed ‘Hu’ who’s younger than everyone else in the room). The woman who introduced him worked at the reception desk of our building. She was young, pretty, and endlessly loving towards the baby. Every time we saw them together, she was nuzzling him, or disciplining him, or helping him learn to walk. She and I shared the bond of new mothers, and we asked each other questions about the babies’ respective nap schedules, eating habits, and ability to communicate. I gave her a present for Xiao Hu’s first birthday (a soccer ball), and she gave me one for Owen’s (a box of Legos). All was well and good, and the burgeoning friendship between Owen and Xiao Hu made me happy. A Chinese friend with a sweet mom for me to talk to: awesome.
Most days, Ayi takes Owen out to play for an hour while I get some stuff done at home (writing blog posts, picking up aforementioned Legos, napping). If the weather’s nice, they go out to the West Lake and make friends with the hundreds of kids out there. If it’s rainy, windy, too cold, too hot or otherwise inclement (this is her judgment, not mine — Owen goes out with me rain or shine because I’m a slave-driver when it comes to outdoors playtime), they go down to the lobby to rustle up some fun there. More often than not, Xiao Hu is around, showing off his newfound ability to run and riding his snazzy toy tricycle around the marble floors. They have fun together, or as much fun as two completely self-centered toddlers can have in each other’s presence. In any case, it’s social interaction, and Owen always comes home happy.
The other day, Ayi and Owen returned from a lobby play session with Xiao Hu, and I asked about Xiao Hu’s mom. Was she there? I wanted to know. “No, but have you ever met Xiao Hu’s father?” I think so, I said. He works in the building, right? “Yes,” Ayi confirmed. That’s convenient, I said: his mom and dad both work here, and they live here. “No, no. Xiao Hu’s mom does not have to work. His dad makes lots of money, and she stays home with Xiao Hu. I have never seen her.” Wait. What? The woman at the desk, the woman whom I daily ask about Xiao Hu’s wake-up and bedtime routines, the woman who asks me how often Owen nurses — this is… not Xiao Hu’s mom? I’m so embarrassed, I could die. I cover it up with Ayi, try to play it cool. Later on, I tell Nick. He says, “Well, I always see her arriving at work when I leave early some mornings. She sure doesn’t live here.” Why did we think she was his mom, then? “I don’t know. She just… seems like his mom.” Yeah. That’s what I thought, too.
China: Just when I think I’ve got some stuff figured out, bam. I’m totally, totally, totally wrong.