Giving Thanks

Agnes and Jackson He
Thanksgiving, 2000, Long Island, New York

This year we celebrate our 10th anniversary.  Ten years ago, when we innocently married each other, who would have had the foresight to know that we would organize our life around bottles, diapers, playgrounds, daycare schedules, and visits to the pediatrician, that getting enough sleep would become a dream, that going to the movies would be a fantasy, that going to the bathroom would no longer be a private matter, and that vacations, if any, would present more opportunities to build character…  But it is indeed hard to put in words what it is like to have kids -- when they are with you 24 hours a day, everyday, you want to run away from them; but when they are away from you, even if just at daycare, you think about them, and cannot resist writing about them.

I. Luran

If you just look at him in the playroom, Luran looks just like the boy he was two years ago, albeit much bigger in size.  He is still a transportation boy. Nothing attracts his attention better than trains, cars, bulldozers, airplanes.  While other kids take their teddy to bed, Luran takes his train.  In fact he takes his trains to daycare, dining table, and bathroom too.  One day, he sat on the floor at the end of his bed, pretzel-legged, put a pillow in front of him, and said, "Mommy, do I look like Thomas?  See, I have a cow catcher too!"  (Thomas is a fictional little tank engine.)  When asked to choose a book at Barnes & Noble on 5th Avenue, New York last Christmas, he ignored isles of children's books there and instead picked a 300-page The Great Railroads of North American which is filled with pictures of trains from all historical periods and all regions.  And he loves train rides. He can tell you all about his train and flight experience to New York City, Las Vegas, and Beijing! More recently, he has developed an additional interest in riding the bicycle (with training wheels). That has to do with his two-week visit in Beijing September this year.  He was fascinated to see so many bicycles there.

However, things have changed quite drastically and mostly for the better, especially after he (finally!) got out of diapers April this year when he turned 3 1/2. It is now an indisputable, uncontested, and generally well observed practice that he should eat his meals, take his bath, brush his teeth, wash his hands before meals and snacks, change his clothes and shoes according to the season, and clean up the playroom. He is also buttoning his shirts, eating his carrots (the only vegetable palatable to him), building train tracks and assembling other toys, wondering whether people in America and China live on the same earth, and learning to vote (on Election Day, his class voted for peanut butter sandwiches).

To our delight, Luran remains very comfortably and confidently bilingual. In March 1999, when he was 2 1/2, for the first time, Luran put his bilingual skills into helping others. A new girl in his class at daycare who spoke only Chinese was sad, crying and mumbling something in Chinese. The teacher asked Luran, "What is she saying?" Luran translated, "She wants to go outside and take a walk."  The teacher led the girl out and walked her in the hallway and the girl was happy! Luran is very proud that he speaks Chinese and once asked his pediatricians whether they speak Chinese too. When he heard the answer was no, he said to them, "But you can try!"  Nowadays, he enjoys his daily Chinese "lessons" (primarily reading) which we have set up as half-play, half-work sessions.  And he is reading better and better each day.

Since sometime between 3 and 3 1/2 years old,  his questions have predominantly begun with "Why".  "Why is the moon in the sky?"   "Why is Mommy not an engineer?"  "Why do we have to clean up the leaves in the fall?"  "Why does the balloon go up?"  "Why does the car need gas?"  "Why can't I eat ice pop now?"  "Why do I have to give this toy to my sister?"  "Why can't I play with my trains today?" …  Typically, after being given an answer, he will challenge / verify the answer by proposing a logical alternative:   "If the moon comes down , what's gonna happen?"  "If Mommy and Daddy are both engineers, what's gonna happen?"  "If we don't go out and help Daddy clean up the leaves, what's gonna happen?" … The lexical item that enjoys the highest frequency in his speech has now changed from the blunt "no" to the more sophisticated "but".  "But" is used not only in dialogues with others (e.g.,  Daddy: "Luran, it's time to go to daycare!"   Luran: "But I'm not ready.") but also pervasively in his monologues. When Luran was in China September this year, on a rare occasion, he was chatting with an adult in English. The adult's child was learning English and tried to decipher what Luran was saying.  After a while, the child said to Jackson, "How come all I can understand is just one word --'but'?"

Luran's preference for "but" captures his spirit quite well. It is a challenge to help him listen. He prefers talking to listening. At a recent gathering of relatives whom he in fact does not see often at all, he got onto the coffee table, called everybody's attention, made a long-winded speech (about stars and fireworks), and regulated who should talk when.  His daycare teacher once said, "Luran just goes on and on. When he grows up, he is going to write an 8,000-page book. And then I can say, 'oh he was in my class!'"  Clearly, the teacher meant as a compliment, for a young child, that is.  But now that Luran is already 4, he needs to listen well, too.  He also needs to listen in the sense of exercising self-control and following others' directions. Discipline has been an issue for a long while. Despite the fact that sometimes the distinction between "a disobedient behavior" and "an individualistic personality" is fussy, it is of utmost importance that he learns how to become a cooperative and productive member in the group. 

To help Luran with self-discipline, we are contemplating assigning him some daily responsibility and perhaps rewarding him, maybe financially, for carrying out his duty. But he is yet to develop the concept of money.  Once he asked Daddy to buy him something. Daddy said, "But I have no money now."  Luran suggested, "Then let's buy some money!"

II. Yiran

In the first few months of Yiran's life, we -- we, two grandmas, and a grandpa, who were all present at her birth -- all thought we were bestowed with an angel. She seldom cried. She slept through the night in the second month. She smiled and smiled and smiled when she was awake.  Because she didn't take much milk and didn't poop often, we were worried.  But the doctor said she was fine. And she WAS fine, happy, smiling, and gaining weight very nicely.

At 18 months now, Yiran remains angelic, but has also taken on more human qualities. Her personalities began to show around eight or nine months.  She is precise, and persistent. She has always liked to be carried in a vertical position.  Maybe that's why she never crawled.  Before she could walk on her own at eleven months, she insisted on standing up and wobbling holding onto us. 

We used to think that people exaggerate the differences between girls and boys and that even if these differences truly exist, they are nothing other than the products of socialization.  Well, Yiran is compelling us to revise our theory.  Without any prompt, she picks up soft, stuffed animals that have been left in the corner of the playroom for two years by her brother, hugs them, pats them and sleeps with them. She yearns to be hugged, kissed, and snuggles in our arms for as long as we would like. Every time we put a piece of new clothes on her, she looks at it and says, "Pretty, Beibei pretty!"  (At home, Yiran is called Beibei.) She calls the pins and bows for her hair "pretty" and always goes to the mirror to check them out. She likes her red leather shoes (with diamond patterns) so much that one day, after the second shoe was put on, she said, "haiyao, haiyao! (want more, want more!)"

Yiran likes to mimic, which certainly helps in the rapid growth of her vocabulary. By eleven months, she spoke a little over 50 words/phrases, mostly in Chinese.  Her vocabulary spurt came when she was about 15-16 months.  Since starting going to daycare three days a week in October (at 16 1/2 months), she has been learning a lot of English too.  She is very sensitive to the context of how language is used, so much so that she sometimes takes on the speech role of other people.  For example, when she knocks on her brother's door, she says, "qing jin (please come in)!" Whether it was Daddy giving her her milk or she handing some garbage to Mommy, she says, "xiexie beibei (Thank you, Beibei)!"  And when she falls on the floor, she says, "Are you alright?"

Among Yiran's favorite expressions are, in descending order of frequency: "mama baobao! (Mommy carry me)", "No!" (even when she means yes), "Funny!" (directed at others), "Hooray!" (when she accomplishes some act or when her wants are met), and "I got you!" (when she approaches us). She loves "pata" [pasta], "lalapop" [lollipop], "babo babo" [blow bubbles], and bath time (except for the shampoo part).  She is an expert on blowing kisses and playing "gee-ga-boo" [peek-a-boo]. 

Maybe music and dance will be very important in Yiran's life. When "aigong" [waigong] and "puo" [waipuo] (maternal grandparents) were with us last summer, waipuo played the piano everyday. Each time she played, Yiran would go to her and ask to play too.  At 10-11 months, she would go to the stereo and ask for "yiye" [yinyue] (music). We have a Baby Einstein CD which features short pieces of classical music. The moment the CD is put on, Yiran cannot stop dancing.  She also dances to the rhythmic tunes in Thomas the Tank Engine and Jay Jay the Jet Plane (video tapes that Luran watches often).

Yiran also loves to read.  She loves to bring a book to us and sit on us to be read to.  She loves turning the pages. When it is the last page, we tell her that is "the end".  So every time if for some reason she cannot turn a page, she says, "The end!" She loves to color, too, and so far seems equally competent with both hands.  Although she often reminds herself to do it "on paper", the bow window sill, the futon, the little table and chairs in the playroom have all become irreversibly colorful. (Jackson is beginning to question the meaning of the word "washable" indicated on those stamp markers and crayons -- can be washed away, or can withstand wash?)

III. Luran and Yiran

Ever since Yiran's birth, Luran has caught her the most attention -- the loudest, most mobile object in her world.  Her very first word that we could clearly understand was "gege (older brother)", said when she was 7 1/2 months old.  Of course she is not thrilled when Luran grabs the toy she is playing with or if he climbs onto Mommy or Daddy who she thinks are exclusively her very own. But if Luran is not around, she misses him. When Luran went with Daddy to China, Yiran often went to his room, looking puzzled and disappointed, and said, "gege meiyou (no brother)?!" When Luran is at daycare and Yiran can have all the toys at home to herself and for as long as she wants, she does not enjoy those toys nearly as much.  And if she happens to be playing with trains, she calls them "gege huoche (brother's trains)". But when Luran returns, she again begins to take apart the train tracks that he spends a long time building. And surely we are going to hear very loud, very urgent, very opinionated voices from the playroom…

Even though Yiran can be a competition and inconvenience to him, Luran is genuinely delighted and amazed by his sister's baby ways.  One day, Yiran was clapping her hands and giggling.  Luran asked, "Mama, beibei shi zhen de ren ma? (Mommy, is Beibei a real human?)" Maybe to him she appears (at least sometimes) more like a doll or some Teletubbie-like creature.  Whether he likes it or not, he loves her.  He loves to let her ride on his shoulders and run around the house, with Daddy holding Yiran and following them, of course. When she is sad, he will run to Mommy and say, "Mama, beibei yao ni baobao! (Mommy, Beibei wants you to hold her!)" The other day we were looking at a picture of Yiran on the slope of a little hill.  Luran grew worried, "Mama, weisheme meimei ziji ne? (Mommy, why is sister by herself?)" Lately he also sings songs (such as The Alphabet Song and Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star) to cheer her up if she becomes sad.

Every evening before bedtime, the two of them jump and roll on Luran's or our bed, hugging and kissing and bumping each other, laughing and screaming with joy. This is when the thought hits us most strongly: gosh we are so blessed! How can we not be thankful!