Sugar is sweet, my love, but not as sweet as you

– Yiran at 4

Agnes and Jackson He, January 2004, Long Island

She is now 4 years and 8 months. She is affectionate, felicitous, physically demanding, intellectually advanced, and, in our view, above average, like all the kids from Lake Woebegone. She is reading and writing, in both English and Chinese. She believes that a strong person must have “fifty-five muscles” and that her Grandma must be as old as fifteen. She is in her second year of dancing and fourth month of piano playing. She speaks with exquisite clarity and delightful creativity. She loves “arting”. She likes chocolate and other things sweet, pretty dresses, soft cuddly animals, and sparkly hair accessories. She wonders why there is no sound when you pick up a cup but there is when you put it down, how she ever got into mommy’s tummy and then got out, and whether she and her brother Luran will be the first human on Mars.

It is hard to observe Yiran objectively. Maybe because she demands our complete engagement and often defies reason. With a tender heart and a quick mind, she is adored by us all.

Tender Heart

Yiran understands and often repeats that the one you love is always with you; when she doesn’t see mommy, mommy is in her heart. But she still needs to see mommy whenever mommy is around, at least once every other minute. She needs to be hugged, and likes it the best when the whole family is hugging together. She needs to have mommy next to her to fall asleep in the night, and to this day, she has rarely slept without mommy.

When she was three, one night after the light was turned off, she said, “Mommy, I can see you with my eyes closed.” Mommy couldn’t be sure whether she was speaking physically or metaphysically, but was moved to tears.

She does not like mommy to use strong words or harsh tones at Luran, and gives this piece of advice: “If Luran does bad things, just kiss him and don’t say anything, ok?” She tells mommy that if she wronged her and her brother, and didn’t apologize, she would still forgive her. We tell her that the most important quality of a person is “xīn hăo” (kind-hearted). She takes the message to heart. In September 2002 she had an accident, a fall that left a scar on her right cheek. Realizing that she has a scar, she asked, “Am I still pretty?” Mommy said yes. She didn’t seem convinced and added, “I wish I didn’t have that scar. But that’s okay. wo de xin hen hao (My heart is very kind)!”

Yiran perceives the world in terms of “love” or “don’t love”. When mommy is mad at her, she always verifies, “Mommy, even when you are mad at me, you still love me, right?” Luran likes to give her lectures. One day he was haranguing about neutron stars, black holes, solar winds, etc., etc. Helplessly lost, Yiran asked quietly, “Excuse me, Luran, are you telling me all this because you love me?” When she leaves her daycare at the end of the day, she goes around to give hugs and kisses to all her teachers, and many of her friends.

Yiran craves for attention. Whatever she is doing (writing, drawing, putting together a puzzle, playing computer games, running around with Luran), she would want us to look at her. If any part of her body is hurt in any way, she will make sure that everyone in the family knows about it and that that part is kissed and rubbed by somebody.

Yiran is also full of compassion. Her tears ran down uncontrollably when she watched for the first time the Chinese cartoon movie “NeZha nao hai” where the mythical boy “NeZha” committed suicide in order to save his townspeople from evil dragons, when we read about how Joan of Arc was burned to death, and when she was told that blacks used to be slaves and that sometimes slave parents were sold and could not be with their own children. On New Year’s Eve, mommy put a bag of used clothes in a donation box. Yiran asked, “Mommy, why do you always give old clothes to the poor? Why don’t you give them new clothes?”

A Mind That Takes Flights

Yiran is quick witted. Often she is the first one to figure out a riddle or to solve a brainteaser. Once, mommy was in a mode of moral education and asked the children, “If there is only one cracker left and both of you are still hungry, what would you do?” Luran said, “We share.” Yiran snapped, “Mommy go shopping!”

She loves lipsticks, rings, bracelets and necklaces, and has recently begun advising mommy what to wear—she would say, “Mommy, come, come to your closet! I will tell you what to wear today. I know what will make you look pretty!” One morning she asked whether she could wear her (toy) necklace to daycare. Mommy said, “You can if you want to. But you see, mommy doesn’t wear any necklace. And daddy still loves me very much.” Yiran thought for a while, and then countered, “I wear my necklace and daddy still loves me very much!”

She also loves to reason. Her daycare is at daddy’s workplace, so they usually go together in the morning. Once, looking at the traffic that was badly congested, she asked, “Why do so many people want to go to daycare?” Daddy said, “I don’t know.” Yiran proffered a reason, “Maybe because daycare is fun. Maybe that’s why!” On a spring day, she asked: “Daddy, do you know who made the wind?” Again, daddy didn’t know. She waved her arms and hands around (in the backseat), saying: “It’s the flags, they go flapping like this; and the trees, they go waving like this! And that’s how they make the wind!” About a year ago, Yiran asked daddy, “Do you know where rain comes from?” “From the clouds?” “No. It comes from the drainpipe. It goes up the drain pipe, then goes into the clouds, then comes down like that.” One morning, mommy told her that she could only have chocolate after dinner. Yiran inquired, “Can I have chocolate after my morning dinner?”

Yiran has developed a strong sense of grammaticality. At three years and nine months, one of our neighbors attempted to pronounce her name correctly, “Yi-ran?” Yiran replied, “Right! You said my name so welly!” At three years and ten months, she said, “I am happy now, but I didn’t be happy when I was in the car.” At the age of four and a half, she came home complaining about one of her daycare friends, “Dillon cries oftenly!” When she learned that “I love you” in French is “Je t’aime”, she said, “Mommy, I je t’aime you!” The highlight of 2003 was our one summer month in Beijing. It was Yiran’s very first visit to China. The most remarkable difference the trip made to us was the gigantic improvement in Yiran’s Chinese. In the days and months after the trip, she was using Chinese when disputing with Luran. She and Luran loved being in China and speaking Chinese so much that they both asked us, “Why do we live in America, and not in China?”

Yiran likes to tell tales. She loves to make up stories long and short (such as “Once upon a time, the end.”) Not only has she mastered the skill of improvising stories, but also the art of delivering them (“and she’s like, …”). She tells us emphatically that when it rained and thundered, she was the only one who was not afraid and protected all the other 20 some kids in her daycare class. And according to her account, not only was she the bravest in daycare, but also the best – such that all three teachers in her room patted her and rocked her (and no other kid) to sleep at naptime!

Here is a card that she made last spring for her friend's birthday. It reads, "Dear Cynthia I wish you have a good time - love Yiran".  Her ingenuity will surely refresh our mind for a long time to come!

Mommy’s Baby

Yiran is very fond of mommy, both in her role as a mother and in her role as an educator. At age 3, Yiran declared, “I just want to be a mommy!” By three and a half, she was asking, “Can I have my own babies? I want two, maybe three!” As she approached four, she was aspiring to accomplish more, “I want to be a mommy and a teacher!” Now that is so gratifying. Her favorite activity is to snuggle against mommy, while repeating: “Mommy cozy!”

Yiran loves to take care of people. Once mommy had a stomachache, and lied down on a sofa. Yiran fetched a pillow and a blanket for her, made sure she’s comfortable, and whispered to her, “Don’t worry, little mommy, I’ll take care of you.” Whenever mommy doesn’t feel well, she would say to her, “Mama, wo xin teng ni (my heart hurts for you).” She often wishes that there were someone younger than she at home that she can look after. And since she is the youngest, she asked for her own pets and on last Labor Day we bought her two goldfish, whom she has named “cheng cheng (little orange)” and “huang huang (little yellow)”. (Well, while Yiran has the desire to love the fish, Daddy has to carry out the duties to sustain the fish’s life, changing the water and filter, cleaning the tank, and even feeding the fish…)

Like mommy, but even more so, she is very neat and very clean. She wants her clothes to be perfect in color and style. She wants her socks to be pulled perfectly straight. She takes great care to choose her hair accessories each morning. She enjoys making beds, not just for herself but also for everyone else in the family. She often asks, “When do we get to clean the house?” and is disappointed when the job is done by the cleaning ladies. At bedtime, she would straighten her sheets, blanket, and pillow cover. Her dresser has seven drawers and she never makes a mistake about which clothe items should go where. Whenever she spots that Daddy’s shoe is not properly pulled or that Luran’s hat is inside out, she would call (yell, actually) their attention immediately.

She fantasizes about getting married. When she was two years and ten months old, she said, “When I am three, I’ll ask a boy to marry me. But he doesn’t want to marry me and I’ll ask another boy to marry me… I want to marry Luran and Luran wants to marry me. And we go to a marry place and I wear a marry dress. Isn’t it lovely, Mommy?” But she worries about growing up too. When we tell her that she needs to eat her vegetables so that she can grow big, she rebuffs: “But I don’t want to grow big. I want to grow small!” She asked mommy recently, “When I am a big person, do I still live with you? Do I have to go far away? Can I visit you and hug you everyday?” Oh, don’t we want to be just the same age all the time, and, failing that, don’t we want to always have her, our precious, around us?

The most special moments for mommy are the wordless, wondrous ones shared with her – the cuddles after bath with her wrapped in her bathrobe and nestled in mommy’s arms, the little hands that hold mommy’s face as she falls asleep, the silent, forgiving tears that run down her cheeks after mommy’s apologies for doing her wrong, the “choking hugs” upon her return home at the end of the day, the long, very long, suffocating kisses she impresses on mommy’s lips and nose, the sour face that shouts her distaste for eggplants (and many other foods), the bright eyes that know, notice and feel everything.

Daddy’s Girl

When mommy is not available, Yiran becomes daddy’s girl. She usually goes to daycare with daddy, and has started to worry about daddy getting lonely when she stops going to daycare next summer. On those occasions, she would whine with the greatest sympathy: “Lonely daddy!” On December 30, she did not go to daycare, and she tucked a stuffed animal in daddy’s computer bag, so that daddy won’t be lonely.

In summer 2003 she had her first dance recital in the Staller Arts Center at Stony Brook University. She and her class (all 3-5 year olds) danced to the music titled “My heart belongs to Daddy”. She was very pleased and exclaimed, “I love Daddy!” She likes to “climb daddy”, starting from daddy’s arms and climbing up to sitting on daddy’s shoulders.

She loves “lunch dates” with daddy, when daddy takes her out of daycare and has lunch with her in the cafeteria. She proclaims that she likes “big people food”, but always picks a piece of plain pizza and a carton of whole milk. Sometimes daddy takes her out during naptime, because she does not need a full hour-and-half’s nap, as the daycare schedule allows. They would go for a short walk in the cafeteria and around the “Symbol University”, composed of four adjacent lecture halls, or, when the weather is nice, a longer walk around the building. Either way, she is always eager to return to daycare.

Luran’s Little Sister

Yiran and Luran enjoy each other’s company very much. They march around the house, singing their own anthem: “Hardie the hardie the hardie…” set to a tune that approximates the Women’s Suffrage March in Mary Poppins. Together they developed a habitual avoidance of “bad-guys” in yet unseen movies, and often wound up watching Luran’s favorite non-fiction movies about dinosaurs, the earth, or the solar system. She often seeks confirmation and comfort in numbers from Luran. When asked whether they would like to go out and take a walk, she may say: “We are not going! Right, Luran?”

Only time will tell whether it is the parents or the brother who have a greater impact on Yiran’s development: because of Luran, Yiran seems to be picking up everything earlier – Chinese (both orthographically and phonetically via pinyin), triceratops, space probes, lunar eclipses, particles, gravity, K’nex, piano, chess, emails, the fictional status of Santa, and so forth. A lot of her learning takes place peripherally. Every time Luran does his homework, Yiran would demand homework for herself too. In the library, she dashes directly to the Junior Non-Fiction aisles… With Luran, Yiran can play hide-and-seek, swing in the backyard (and shout “Hey, beetle juice (Betelgeuse)!” whenever their swings pass each other), have “pajama parties” on weekends (where she and mommy share his bed), take baths in the same tub, chase and study squirrels in the park, go “bear hunting” in the woods off a campground (she alone knows the “bear hunting” rhyme), observe the moon and Mars through telescope, build paper airplanes and missiles, play tag (to catch daddy together, as she’s “too small” to play either role alone), ride bicycles and scooters, patrol around the house searching for and shooting at imaginary bad guys, share private expressions such as “plum time” (time to switch turns) and “Du Du!” (No! No!), trade jokes, and fight about who gets to snug next to mommy.

Her relationship with Luran is fluid. Sometimes she would ask for concessions during play because she is “still little”. Sometimes she would instruct Luran what is the right thing to do, and what are the niceties to say. She reminds Luran that he needs to pack snack in the evening, and to bring his schoolbag in the morning. She awaits his approval when finished with her “homework”; she would shout, “Luran, I’m done with my math! Can you check? I’m ready for my star!”

Happy Child

Like Luran, Yiran is a happy child. She likes to laugh, and would laugh incessantly after someone tells a joke, even if she doesn’t understand it at all. She also makes up silly jokes, and delights in making Luran laugh, often to the point where Luran starts to cough (due to his asthmatic condition, he is prone to coughing when excited) and we have to intervene and stop them. And when she finds some reason to be happy, she wants to share. One time when daddy pretended not to laugh with her, she used her little hands to manipulate daddy’s facial features to make him laugh.

During a normal weekday, Luran gets home first, and mommy would direct him to do homework and various projects. He does them alone, while mommy carries on with her own work, and the house is quiet. Then Yiran gets home with daddy, and the house starts to shake. It is a rare occasion when we cannot hear their noise and know what they are up to at the moment. When that happens, most likely they would soon pop out of somewhere, screaming, “Boo!”

Yiran always leaps and hops on her way to daycare and on her way home. People going to work would look at her and comment: “It’s good to see someone who is this happy to come here in the morning!” And people leaving for home would say: “Don’t I wish I have that kind of energy now!” More often, people would simply smile at her and her daddy. And daddy would feel very, very proud.

Is that your little girl? She looks a lot like you.
Someday some boy will come, and write in her book, too:
Roses are red, my love, violets are blue,
Sugar is sweet, my love, but not as sweet as you.

However unwilling to face it, we know that he is getting ready to come. We just hope that when he does he will hug her a lot.