Reluctant babysitter

My youngest niece and nephew - a pair of Taiwanese kids 11 and 12 years old - have been staying with us in New York for the past week. They speak no English, and their families sent them here hoping that they would somehow pick some up with us. Taiwan parents can be terribly neurotic about getting their children into college, and my wife and I don't want to be part of this. Or maybe it was to get some breathing space. (parents? children?) Well, anyway, we couldn't refuse the request, at least not outright. The original plan was to have just the nephew here for two weeks, but somehow his younger cousin was added to the itinerary without our being consulted, and the time extended to two months. I can't say I took that gently. I am supposed to come up for early tenure next Fall, and must make substantial headway on a book this summer if that plan is to come to fruition. Having children under foot all summer would be a superb way to kill that project. So YSJ (my wife) and I fought about it a bit, and finally formed a united front: we called Taiwan and insisted that we could not take the kids for more than two weeks. They arrived with full-fare tickets and a scheduled stay of 4 weeks. We immediately phoned China Airlines and changed the return to the 18th day after their arrival. Today is just about the half-way mark, and I'm ready to start committing reflections to the keyboard.

I suppose my brother-in-law and sisters-in-law think we are wasting the family's money by sending them home so soon. But I expect our expenses these two-and-a-half weeks to approach a huge sum of money and little research to get done on my book, and no one can really expect us to do more than that. The families live in the Taiwanese countryside, where kids are mostly left to play by themselves in front of the TV or with other children. Little attention is paid to them and little trouble is taken unless they do something seriously wrong. But my in-laws should have realized that we do things differently here. We don't know where to dig up other kids, Chinese-speaking ones, on short notice in New York. YSJ and I have reached middle age with no children and no TV, and when we turn our minds to something - a movie, some music, a game, a meal - we give it full and sustained attention, something I think most young people and even most parents have difficulty doing. And so the past 8 days have been deeply draining - for the kids as well as for us.

It has been a crash course in child-rearing. We take turns so as to give each other rest time, and try to trick the kids into getting tired out as soon as possible. I generally take them out for breakfast - such exotic fare as omelettes, bagels with cream cheese, waffles - and run them through Riverside Park and up and down Broadway or Amsterdam Avenue on foot as often as feasible. Why not bound up the stairs to the apartment instead of waiting for the dumb elevator? We spend a certain amount of time each day playing board games together at home while listening to music, and schedule one big activity a day. The kids have been hauled off to see Blue Man Group, the Empire State Building, De La Guarda, the musical 42nd Street, the Museum of Natural History, the 4th of July Macy's fireworks over the East River, a boat ride up the Hudson River to the Rockefeller estate Kykuit, and so forth and so on. A puppet show is on tomorrow's menu, and Coney Island, Pilobolus, and the Bronx Zoo loom next week.

Compromises we have made:

  • They are now fed Chinese food at least once a day, since multi-ethnic New York fare seems to freak them out.
  • We don't actually test them on the English vocabulary words we are trying to teach them, although YSJ does make them copy the words out a couple of dozen times.
  • Although we'd like to dispense with all disciplinary activities, it's clear that the kids need a certain amount of arbitrary rule-enforcement to make them feel secure - this was a real eye-opener for us.
  • The greatest things about New York - window shopping, rubbernecking at the architecture and the people, conversations with strangers on the subway - all leave them cold; we are leading a far more insular life with them than we ordinarily do here.

Tonight, after watching De La Guarda, we walked up Broadway from Union Square. After many days of unbearable heat there was a cool breeze on the street, and we headed uptown past piles of trash bags that were just beginning to be collected. We passed the Flatiron Building and the funny Indo-Pak mercantile neighborhood in the 20's. The Empire State Building, lit up in the colors of the American flag, stood over us till we got to the 30's, and then we made our way up to the bustling brilliance of Times Square. The kids goggled at the giant TV screens, the only TV they'll see this trip. One of those Andean-style pan pipe troupes was performing in the middle of the square, and the four of us stood around for a long time in the breeze, listening to the wistful music and watching a black plastic bag blowing languorously around 200 feet over the heads of the crowds. It was 10 pm, and the streets were jammed. This is my hometown, and unlike some of the people I grew up with, I find it natural to overlook or even take real pleasure in sights and smells that greatly disturb others. Perhaps I've been brainwashed, somehow, but with all its flaws the city seems more perfect and human to me than anywhere else I have ever lived. Particularly, seeing the physical diversity of the people in New York always moves me enormously, and tonight I find myself hoping I can convey some of that bittersweet sensation to the kids. Or maybe it has to awaken of itself.

My nephew plays the flute and is interested in music. He watched the pan-pipes with close attention, as he did a Chinese flautist playing on the subway platform when we finally decided to head home. I can't tell what he really thinks about the music or about anything else. De La Guarda seems to have completely baffled both of them - although the little girl managed to salvage a balloon for herself, which her cousin popped as soon as they left the theatre. I'm more sensitive than usual this week to the miscarriages of communication between people. It's striking that when left alone, the kids talk to each other in a very different linguistic register than they use with us - they speak to each other clearly and articulately, but to us they mumble, slur their words together, and use terse expressions that are hard for YSJ and me to make out. YSJ is making the kids keep diaries of what they see and do here, and a side-effect of this is that it makes them reflect a little right now on what they're doing. Maybe that is the best thing that is happening this trip - that and the bonding taking place between them and us.

A few small details to remember:

  • The boy has never seen a beard grow in, so I have stopped shaving, to let him see how sandpaper turns to stubble and then to actual hairs.
  • We see how much trickier the little girl is than her cousin - we think he will have a harder time in life because he's basically honest and straightforward. On the other hand, he can find things to satisfy himself with if left alone. We feel a considerable bond with him, and he clearly does with us, too. The little girl has more devious ways, and loses interest in everything before too long. She does things she shouldn't and then lies about them, or she blames her cousin. For example, she managed to pry open our unopenable back door the first morning she was here, and then couldn't figure out how to get it closed and locked again. In my slumber I heard the door open and get inconclusively shut a few times, and when I got up and poked my head out I heard the kids talking about it, so I know more or less what happened. But the little girl absolutely denies having had anything to do with it. Well, children do lie; by itself it's not such a issue. But she has many such bad habits. We think the dirty world is more easily navigated by personalities like hers. YSJ said that she sees in the girl some of the same things that always drove her crazy about her late brother, and (especially) about her sister-in-law.
  • The little boy believes that he does not like chocolate, but when confronted with one of those rich "flourless chocolate cakes" recently in vogue, he gave a strange performance: he put a small bite of cake gingerly into his mouth, grimacing as though it was a terrible experience. He repeated this at least half a dozen times. It's clear that he actually loves rich chocolate and can't control himself in its presence, but he still believes he doesn't like it, and makes faces accordingly. We're wondering when and how this will resolve itself.
  • YSJ said, "You know they are still country kids, not city kids." Since she grew up in the same village they did, I asked her what made her become a city kid. No answer.

YSJ and I are exhausted, and no amount of sleep seems to cure that. But I have, in fact, gotten some research work done - about 2000 characters checked and 40 etymologies done since the kids arrived. It turns out to be possible to steal productive moments in the middle of chaos.

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