Falling and Getting Hurt

Yesterday, while getting my kids from their preschool, and remembering to walk our bike out of the parking and pickup area, I lost it. Like a serious leather biker dumps their bike, but with kids on it. Clump and I couldn’t pick them up on their slow descent to the ground.

Luckily, they both wear helmets. They were unscathed if not a bit shaken.

I was the mom who couldn’t pick up my heavy beast of a bike, with its luggy battery pack and solid frame in yellow. Half of my right foot came out of its flat, all twisted like a newly bound foot. My knee bit the ground and I murmured “F—” with two other moms (and my kids) around.

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“Are you okay”? asks the mom who is slowing steering her pram into the site. “Daijobu desu ka?” I am still battling for the will and strength to pick up my bike with kids on it, tilted and operating with a knee that must be bloody. Clearly, I am not alright.

“Daijobu janai” I reply, all misaligned, head eying the ground where the frame lays, kids flailing like beetles on their backs, still on the ground because I still can’t pick them up. I must be at a weird angle.

Another mom comes in and now rushes to pick up my bike. My jeans are ripped and sure enough, a red line is peeking out. I walk us out of the main gate and wonder how solid I am to take these guys home. I decide with kids that I need to lift weights because I must need more strength so I can help them and others.

I push us past lights and cross streets, knee pulsing with each pedal-kick. “I’ll be your doctor, Mom. We’ll get you a Band-aid and medicine and I’ll put it on.”

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She sifts through the tin, shuffling bright kid bandages out of the way. Doctor daughter retrieves the necessary bland adult ones and washes her hands. She sits me down, ordering me in Japanese. “This is a Japanese office. We don’t understand English.” She is taking care of me, seeing me through what I cannot do as well. This is her niche. I just have to sit and not flinch. She preps the two Band-aids, custom-sized to my two bloody scrapes, a gooey dose of medicine subduing the sore pain. She ends with a hug.

I think this is a perfect snapshot of life today– failing, falling, and letting my kids see my desire to be strengthened, letting them be part of the healing. I am a good patient. I appreciate the kindness. That’s the point. Leveling your bike, falling on your butt can bring out the grace. In the morning, I’ll ask my girl to look at my wounds and assess for further care.

The jeans are a bit done for, unless I want to rock a hole and be the biker mom. Or maybe it’s time for me to simply ride in leather.

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Hong Kong Cakes and Blown-out Candles with Susan B. Kason

This cross-cultural birthday post is a bit different than the others. More rum, less sprinkles. A sophisticated, intercultural love story, this coming-of-age tale plays out over continents, through hopping cities, and over great seas.

Good Chinese Wife is a compelling, smart memoir, bringing you to picture each vivid scene, each paragraph and chapter, with the enthusiasm it deserves.

Susan B. Kason, author of Good Chinese Wife (Sourcebooks, Inc.), writes about leaving Chicago, circa 1990, to study in Hong Kong, the then quiet Tolo Harbour, for a year. Later, upon returning for graduate school, Susan meets the cute cellist. She is smitten with China; taken by Cai’s soft charm.

Good Chinese Wife

I’ve been wanting to interview this down-to-earth, yet dazzling author for a long time, and this series became a great opportunity for us to team up! Susan is kind, encouraging, and superbly talented. She must also be quite brilliant.

Kirkus calls her book, “An American freelance journalist’s painful account of how a hasty marriage to a Chinese man turned her life upside down…it is the author’s courage to face her mistakes that makes the book worthwhile.”

This guest post is not an excerpt from her book, but a very separate response to my prompt; I asked the author for a birthday anecdote that was difficult, or rewarding, perhaps nudging us to reexamine our own cultural expectations.

Here it is! 

* * *

I met my first husband a month before his thirty-third birthday. By the time I found out when it was, his birthday had passed. On his birthday the following year, we were already married and still living in the Hong Kong graduate student dormitory where we met. I asked Cai what he wanted to do for his thirty-fourth birthday, but he only shrugged.

“Nothing special,” he said. “I haven’t celebrated it in years. Honestly, sometimes I forget all about it.”

I felt so bad for Cai and knew I had to put an end to this business of not celebrating his birthday. Maybe this was a mainland Chinese custom, but we were in Hong Kong, which was a great place to find birthday cakes. Even twenty years later, I can taste the lightness of Hong Kong cakes with its signature whipped cream frosting and fruit filling.

For Cai’s birthday, though, cake wasn’t going to be enough. I had bigger plans: a surprise party! Every night after dinner, Cai watched the news from China in our dorm’s common room. His friends all came from mainland China, too, and milled about the common room all evening. One evening when Cai was out at a department dinner, I wandered into the common room and waited until a commercial break. Then I got the attention of his friends and explained my plan.

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“I’ll get a cake and some soft drinks. If you can stay here until seven, that would be great.”

Now I just had to order the cake. That was easy because most Hong Kong train stations housed a Maxim’s cake shop, so I simply hiked downhill from our dorm to the train station and placed my order. I could store the cake in the common room’s refrigerator the afternoon of Cai’s birthday. He habitually played ping pong with other mainland students just before dinner.

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About ten minutes before Cai usually left our room to watch the news, I excused myself to make a call on the hall phone. Instead, I ran down to the common room, where I had earlier hid some candles and matches from a restaurant. Cai’s friends were ready and told me they would guard the lit cake while I returned to our room to get the birthday boy.

“There’s a problem in the common room,” I said, out of breath. I felt like an actress, playing her role to perfection. “You need to come right away.”

A sudden look of terror struck Cai’s face. He stood up and pushed away his chair, following me out of the room without bothering to lock the door. He did shut it, though.

When we reached the common room, the lights were out and the candles glowed brilliantly. Just then a friend flipped the light switch and half a dozen graduate students shouted, “surprise”, in English.

Cai’s face froze and it took him a moment to register what was going on. As soon as he saw the cake with his name on it, he sighed with deep relief and said I scared him half to death.

“Don’t surprise me like that again,” Cai told me after we were back in our room. “I almost passed out.”

I didn’t surprise Cai the following year, but still insisted on celebrating his birthday. Cai was back in China for a few months while his passport and Hong Kong student visa were being renewed. I had graduated and had a job in Hong Kong by then, which meant I couldn’t pick up and leave with him for three months. But I could take off a week to visit him for his birthday. “I’ll bring you a cake,” I told Cai over the phone a couple weeks before I left for Wuhan.

“That would be great!”

But over the next week, I worried about taking a delicate Hong Kong birthday cake across the border to Shenzhen, on a bus to the airport, a two-hour flight, and then a rickety bus ride to his hometown two hours outside Wuhan. My friend Zara and I made multiple trips to the Metropole Hotel’s cake shop during our lunch break. I asked many questions about transporting a cake to the interior of China. The women at the cake shop suggested a pie.

“Brilliant!” Zara said. “That would hold up much better.”

And I had to agree. So I ordered a pecan pie. Cai and his family liked to eat nuts, so I figured a pecan pie would go over well.

On the day of my trip, I left work at noon, picked up the pie, and headed home before starting on my half-day trip. Along the way, I took special care to make sure the pie  remained secure in its box. By the time I met Cai at the Wuhan airport, the pie was still in tact.

“You brought it!” Cai marveled.

“Yes, of course. We can’t celebrate your birthday tomorrow without a special dessert.”

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The next day after lunch, Cai, his parents, three sisters and their spouses all crowded around the dining table, oohing and aahing, while I cut the pie into equal parts. Cai’s eldest sister took the first bite and immediately set her plate back on the table.

Bu hao chi,” she spat. That’s gross. The others took bites and did the same thing, except for Cai and his father.

Was the pie spoiled or had it gone bad on the trip? I was mortified and immediately took a bite to see for myself.

Rum.

The pie was spiked with rum and lots of it. Not a big drinker, I still ate my piece of pie out of duty to myself after schlepping it half across China. The rest of it found its way into the trash. I was disappointed the family didn’t like the pie, but also a bit miffed that the cake store hadn’t warned me.

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Cai and I wouldn’t celebrate many more of his birthdays together. We divorced a few years after the pie incident.

* * * *

What a nice glimpse at the author, and a fabulous essay. (I’d definitely eat that pie. I keep thinking that.)

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Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair With China Gone Wrong (Sourcebooks, 2014) and lives in the Chicago suburbs with her three children and new husband of almost ten years. Purchase here 

Author Links:

Beautiful site

Twitter

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Other pieces in this “B-DAY” series:

Figuring out celebrations in Japan!

Cake in the South of France!

Blowing Out Candles in Another Culture, With Nurturance

I’d been in Japan’s sultry summer just a few weeks, if that, when I met her. Both newly hired by our esteemed international preschool, we met en route to the main school campus. I was clearly out of my element, yet she already knew the way. She was my first friend.

Merete is the one I “talked shop” with, collaborated with during shared breaks, and spilled my relocated, newly adventurous heart with, over after school snacks and through evenings of book group. She was first person (after my husband) whom I told I was pregnant, standing outside of Peacock supermarket with an armful of flowers and groceries, before even those first flutters.

Merete is a mentor. She’d already lived abroad, spending a great bulk of her formative years in Japan. She later raised her kids there, navigating a teaching career and being the solid, affirming mother for her three children.

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She is not in Japan any longer, but we have this friendship.  She has, after recently earning a heralded degree through Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, begun Nurturance, offering stream-lined, research-based ways to support parents and their children.

For this series, Merete shares a sweet birthday memory that embodies cultural sensitivity with all of the heart of a loving mom eager to celebrate her child’s birthday.

Enjoy Merete’s birthday post below!

Birthdays: a time to celebrate another year of life on this planet. A time to look back, reflect, remember and to be amazed at the passage of time that has slipped by, practically unnoticed through the haze of the never-ending, mundane, day-to-day routines. In our family, a birthday is a day that belongs to the person whose day it is: the entire day exists to celebrate the birthday child! Birthdays hold great significance for us, but we realize that that not every family shares our enthusiasm for marking the passage of time.

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Our children’s early birthdays were carefully orchestrated with great fanfare. I spent hours thinking of the most appropriate way to celebrate. I carefully planned the menu, the guest list, the present, the cake… Oh my goodness – the cakes! I had stacks of books with ideas and photographic instructions for making birthday cakes. I researched foolproof decorating techniques that would result in cakes that were recognizable representations of my children’s current passions or interests, or maybe ones that simply looked cute and memorable despite my lack of creativity and skill. On Birthday-Eves (is that a thing? – it is in our house!) my husband and I would stay up late blowing up balloons and decorating the house with streamers and other birthday paraphernalia, certain that our child NEEDED to feel that their home was completely transformed in honor of her special day.

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And yet, birthdays were fraught with conflicting expectations and varying levels of enthusiasm outside our immediate family. All three of our children were born in Japan, where it was not customary to celebrate birthdays in the big way we were apt to do. During the early years, we managed to keep birthday celebrations contained to family and close friends who were also foreigners. We held small, intimate gatherings that were not overtly visible or advertised to the outside world of our Japanese neighbors.

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By the time our oldest daughter entered school, however, life had altered a bit. We lived in a high-rise neighborhood on the outskirts of Tokyo, with little to no interaction with anyone who was not Japanese. My daughter attended a local preschool/kindergarten, and when her 5th birthday rolled around, I felt that I had a dilemma on my hands. In the 18 months that she had attended her school, she had not been invited to one birthday party. This was not because she was left out, it was merely due to the fact that to my knowledge, not one child ever HAD a birthday party (for friends – I am not sure what families did at home). When she turned five I wanted to celebrate! I wanted fanfare! Cake! Streamers! Balloons! Presents!! We decided to forego having a party with her school friends opting instead to celebrate along with international family and friends who traveled quite a distance to be with us the weekend before her birthday. We had a fun time; complete with the birthday trappings we were accustomed to. However, she (understandably) wanted to also include her close school friends on her actual birthday.

I was particularly close to one Japanese mom at our school bus stop and her son was one of my daughter’s good friends. I invited them over to our apartment on the day of her birthday to have cupcakes. I tried to keep it simple and low key. I served cupcakes and juice but had no games planned. I tried to prepare my daughter for the fact that there would likely be no more gifts. This was to be a casual gathering, more like a birthday play-date.

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After helping me serve the children their cupcakes and drinks, my friend pulled a beautiful box out of her purse. She called my daughter over and apologized for bringing such a insignificant gift. Opening the pretty box revealed a glittering heart pendant attached to a black velvet ribbon. It was not my friend’s custom to buy a gift for a child outside her immediate family. However, she knew it was a Western tradition to give presents at other children’s birthday parties. Instead of purchasing a present, she searched her home and found a small piece of jewelry that held meaning for her, attached it to a velvet ribbon and presented it to my daughter as a special token of her friendship.

My daughter will turn 17 on her next birthday. We live in Massachusetts now, and have navigated various birthday party cultures in several different settings and countries since the time she was five. I recently asked her if she remembers any of the gifts she received for her birthday as a child or if she recalls any of the cakes and parties we had. If it were not for photographs I doubt she would remember many details. When we spoke of presents she drew a complete blank until I asked about the pendant. Her eyes lit up. “I remember that! I KNOW I still have both the box and the pendant somewhere in my room upstairs!”

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The traditions and expectations surrounding the celebration of children’s birthdays differ from place to place and from culture to culture. I have learned that I cannot presume to expect that birthday parties will look the same in any two locations. My children have attended parties where presents are opened on the spot, and others where presents are tucked away, opened privately and thank you notes mailed at a later date. Some parties have taken place in people’s homes with homemade food and games led and planned by family members while other families choose to support the professional birthday-party industry by holding the party at a bowling alley, movie theater, gym or ice rink. Sometimes adults are expected and encouraged to stay, while other times the parties are strictly “drop off.” In some settings the whole class must be invited while in others, birthdays are private affairs and remain within the family. Certain schools encourage classroom celebrations while others shun any disruption in the curriculum or the singling out of individual students for special attention.

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I have have learned to observe and study the customs of those around me in order to know how to interact with people in my environment regarding birthdays. We continue to celebrate birthdays in a big way in our own home and to include close friends in our traditions although our customs may not mirror theirs. We have been pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm and thoughtfulness of people who care deeply for our children and us and we have discovered and incorporated new traditions along the way.

My friend’s thoughtful act of giving, which was completely outside her cultural experience, remains a precious memory of our time in Japan for both my daughter and I. I am thankful that we were able to cross the barriers of cultural differences and build bridges of friendship and shared memories through the celebration of birthdays.

**Merete’s educational, multi-faceted, family-support website will be remodeled and back in business soon! For now, I’m a happy host!