I was tagged to bring 20 cupcakes to J’s class for their Christmas party. Except, I’m not such a great cupcake baker. The bakeries around here do a great job with cakes, so I decided to order cupcakes.
Two years ago, I ordered cupcakes for J’s birthday party. They made a HUGE cake, cut it into slices, and then decorated each slice. Then each slice was individually wrapped and packed back into the cake box. Oh yeah, it was delicious cake. And each slice would have been enough for about three little children. Plus, that the whipped cream on top was messy, and not to mention that there was neway any kid could pick it up to eat it. It simply wasn’t finger food and it wasn’t kid food.
Not wanting that to happen again, I decide to ask S Y if it’s even possible to get cupcakes. If I can’t get CUPCAKES, I will make them myself.
These things always start with, "I just wanna know." Remember my previous Blog entry about suspending expectation? Well, I just want cupcakes for my kid’s party. If I can’t get that from a bakery, I’ll bake it myself. So please, just be up front and tell me. If the answer is "no," that’s okay, and I can take care of it myself.
So, don’t pretend that you understand when you don’t. Don’t tell the the answer you think I want to hear, if you know it’s impossible. In this culture, these two things happen a lot when someone could "lose face" by telling you the honest truth. But, there are no issues about cupcakes that are risky enough to involve losing face, are there?
On Thursday, I take SY into the kitchen. I pull out my cupcake baking pan, I pull out the little paper cups to go inside. I tell her that in the USA these are called "cupcakes," and I say that word as it literally translaes into Chinese: "bei dan gou." I ask her if you can get these in China. "Oh yes, of course."
I tell her that J’s class is having a party on Friday morning and that I want to order 30 to be ready by 9 AM on Friday. "Sure, no problem."
I am envisioning cupcakes, right? What is she envisioning? Visions of sugar plums? The problem is, I can’t read her mind. All I can do is trust her when she tells me she understands.
There’s some technique I learned in which you’re supposed to have the person tell you in their own words what they understand, and then you know if there’s a miscommunication. I use this often; I need to exercise this technique more where translation issues are concerned. One challenge is that it’s a bit trickier than it sounds when one of you speaks Chinese and the other speaks English.
SY says she’ll go order them on her way home, and then pick them up on the way to work Friday morning. That way, they’ll be here by 9 AM. She says they’ll be 1.8 RMB apiece. I give her 50 RMB.
8 AM Friday morning, SY arrrives back at my house with 30 muffins, wrapped 2 to a pack. No frosting. Oh, heck! I don’t have the ingredients to make frosting; I can only get that from the foreign grocery store and I might have to look a couple of places to get it. I’d have to make a special trip, which involves telephoning the driver for an appointment and of course we can’t interfere with his lunch hour or his nap time. And then brave the crowds and hope that one of the numerous import shops will have the ingredients I need. If you’ve read my Blog entry about J’s birthday party, you get an idea of the challenge. The simplest thing is to get the bakery to put the frosting on. They make a great whipped cream frosting.
Since D hasn’t left for work yet, I’m greatly relieved that he is here to help me. Life is always better when he’s around. He says it’s a simple fix, call the translator!
Our translator, M, is great. Sometimes I’m amazed at her mental flexibility when, knowing that she’s at work, absorbed in something completely different, I call her out of the blue and ask her, "Please tell the taxi driver to turn right immediately!" She just switches gears and does it.
She isn’t god, though, so she’s not omniscient. English is her third language. We have to explain to her what frosting is. This involves looking for the word "Icing" and "Frosting" in my dictionary. As luck would have it, the word is in my little dictionary. Then M gets on the phone to SY and explains what we want.
No problem, SY says. She will take them back to get them frosted. But it will cost 3 RMB apiece. D says no problem and gives her 100 RMB to pay for it. ("No problem" is a common word, "mei you wen ti," it literally translates as have no worries. One expat we know joked, "Why do my hands start to shake when someone says "no problem?")
Okay. SY insists on riding her bicycle to the place rather than taking a taxi, but she delivers them back to be frosted. I have my misgivings, because I’m wondering how she will safely transport 30 iced cupcakes on a bicycle. She takes a very long time. When she returns, she has no cupcakes. She tells me they will be ready by 2:00. This won’t do, I tell her, because the party is at 2:00. I need the cupcakes by 1:30.
They say, when you negotiate in China, double your price and cut your time in half, that way you have room to move on both. Well . . . she says, she’ll have the cupcakes there by 2:00. At 1:00 she leaves to go get the cupcakes . . . on her bicycle again. She says she’ll deliver them to the school at 2:00. Again, I decide to trust her judgment about the bicycle and delivery issues. After all, she KNOWS this is a party for 20 little kids, and she has a brain, so she has an idea what is needed.
At 2:00, I’m at the school but there’s no SY. There are 20 kids. Fortunately, the other 3 volunteer mommies have arranged crafts. I am also the music: I’m playing guitar and doing a Christmas carol sing along. We decide to do the crafts first, then music, then eat last. I call SY on her cell phone and ask what’s the status. She says she’ll arrive in 10 minutes. At about 2:45, while we are doing music, she arrives with the cupcake boxes. I am so busy singing songs with the kids that I don’t notice her arrival. The other mommies put the cupcakes out on the tables.
When I turn my attention to it, I see that they are beautifully decorated slices of cake. Each piece is individually wrapped in plastic. There is whipped cream frosting all around on top of them. Lovely purple and yellow decoration on half, lime green and pink on the other half. And absolutely no way it can be picked up to eat it. Not only would you get whipped cream all over your hands, the cake itself is too soft to pick up. And zero forks. Just like J’s party 2 years ago, except there’s nothing to eat them with this time.
J’s remarkably creative teacher says, "Hold it by the plastic!" I see a few children digging in face first, like dogs. I use my big, grownup hands to use the plastic to hold the cake slice for a few highly motivated cake eaters. In the back of my mind, a little voice reminds me that I’m not meeting American hygiene standards since I’m not wearing latex gloves.
I have plastic forks at my house, it will take SY at least 10 minutes to get them to the school. I call her and tell her, "There are no forks!" ("meiyou chaozi!") At first she thinks I’m saying chopsticks ("meiyou quaizi"). (I recall the first time I gave her cake at my house, and she ate it with chopsticks.) Then she catches on and says she’ll be right there. She arrives just as the other 3 mommies are helping the kids pack their things to go home.
And this story doesn’t even include the part about the fake Chinese printer that wouldn’t print the songsheets I spent hours compiling and typing. When it piles on, it really can pile on.
I had volunteered to bring my guitar and sing Christmas carols for the kids, but since these are not western kids, they have no idea what a Christmas carol is. But after all, it IS the AMERICAN school, and they are in the school because they want to learn about American culture and traditions and . . . of course . . . learn how to speak ENGLISH. So, they don’t give a rip about political correctness and whether they get to sing Kwanza songs. They want a Christmas party with Christmas songs, and I planned to give it to them. I typed up words to about twelve Christmas songs, including secular ones. I set it up to print in brochure format, I spent hours adding in cute clip art. And then my printer wouldn’t print it.
Last year, when we needed a computer printer, I asked the factory IS department to price out a "four in one" HP with a flatbed scanner. They responded that I should get a 3 in one, because I can always scan and then e-mail files, and they recommended a little model that they said would work just fine. Deferring to their expertise, I said "okay." Mistake!
When you scan a file, this printer converts the file to some huge number of megabytes in a strange file format. It’s impossible to resize it to something that another person’s computer can actually open and read. And the instructions are all in Chinese. I have never figured out how to scan a single document. My poor husband who works 60 hours per week has figured it out, and he wrote me out a list of instructions on how to do it. That list, taped to my office desk, literally takes up an entire sheet of notebook paper. D struggles weekly with this contraption to file things like expense reports and medical receipts for insurance, adding another ten hours worth of paperwork every week. When we went to try and download "English speaking" software, we learned that HP doesn’t make this model printer. Wow, sure could have fooled me from the logos on the box (they’re really good at faking stuff here). But the printer is here now and it does work to print. It’s paid for, another $100 down the tubes, and we use it. But it sure wouldn’t work to print my brochures.
So, I’m flipping out not just about cupcakes, but because I’m playing guitar for 20 kids, I’ve spent hours preparing a really nice brochure that they can take home, but now I have nothing. No cupcakes, no music. There is a class room full of kids counting on me, and I’m a failure! I’m imagining chaos. I remember S’s second grade Christmas party, when I also played guitar, but when none of the kids were interested. That year, we switched gears really fast to a movie. Therefore, as a backup, I grab a copy of "The Night Before Christmas" so I can read it in a pinch. (Even though that’s such an American book that even European kids can’t relate to it. Like the archaic language of nursery rhymes, it’s something you have to be raised with.)
And so, now you know what a TIC day is. When expats say "TIC," that term is laden with meaning. It means: "This is China. So, don’t expect it to be like home. Get used to it, suck it up, do it their way, sometimes the communication and cultural differences are insurmountable. Cope as best you can."
I realize it seems selfish and whiney to put this discussion in the context of daily triviata like cupcakes with no icing and printers that won’t print. On the other hand, that’s the way we experience it. Small, insignificant frustrations are such a large part of life that they become overwhelming. Multiply two incidents times fifty, and you get an idea what everyday life can be like. Like a small splinter that just rubs. You look at the little speck in your hand, and you can’t believe that something that small could cause so much discomfort. Or, it’s like a pebble of sand in your shoe that isn’t so horrible, but it just doesn’t feel right. Yes, there’s joy, excitement, adventure in living in a very different land. On the other hand, you can’t even assume the most basic of things, for instance that anyone else knows what a cupcake is, even when you use a translator to explain it.
Our family once had a friend who broke down in tears when she learned that Pizza Hut here couldn’t serve a certain type of salad dressing. Now, the logical perspective is that we should be grateful to have a Pizza Hut at all. It seems ridiculously funny to cry over a certain salad dressing. On the other hand, everyone in our family could relate to her tears with the utmost empathy: when you just want something to be like home, when you get your hopes up or your expectations that it may be like home, and then your hopes are dashed. And this happens many times per day. The girl in tears was having what we call a "TIC Day."
Every day, there are countless opportunities for things not to be like you expect; no comforts of home unless you make them. We can make it like home to some degree; we make trips to five different stores to get ingredients for a birthday party. We can adapt to make it a different home; we learn how to make brownies in a microwave. We adjust our expectations and our methods; in doing so we make the world we inhabit into an authentic home, even if that home has no cupcakes in it.
Somehow, things do seem to work out in the end. The kids ate their pretzels. Some of them got a few bites of cake, some took their cake home. There were enough un-touched slices of cake — 16 to be exact — that I could send some home with the teacher and with the other mommy helpers. We sang about ten songs, or maybe more. In fact, the teacher already had song sheets that she could share with the class: Frosty, Silent Night, Away in a Manger, Jingle Bells, Here Comes Santa Claus, The First Noel, Hark the Herald, Rudolph, Joy to the World, and We Wish You a Merry Christmas. I’m still a lousy guitar player, but I can fake it with little kids pretty well.
Yah, somehow it does always seem to work out. Either that, or you’re dead.
Speaking of dead, remember my Blog entry about the car wreck? My friend D put the fear of god into me on Thursday, when we met for brunch. I told her about the problems with our driver driving too fast and not carefully enough, and about my not knowing what to do about it. She says, if some accident happens, in China the person being driven (not the driver) is the one who is held personally accountable. Yep, personally, as in "you are a rich American, you pay $$$." Me. And then she also told me about westerners injured in car wrecks and unable to get anyone to take responsibility. And then, as I’m crossing the street to get to my house after our brunch together, a speeding car (typical Chinese driver) careens around the corner and almost runs over me. I hope nobody ever has to collect my life insurance while I’m living in China. It’s one thing to get hit by a car and killed in your own country, even worse in a foreign one.
So yeah, the alternative literally is to be dead. So far, things have always worked out okay for me here. Knock on wood.