Rachel celebrated her birthday in China this year. We used the occasion to invite all of our sophomore class students over to our apartment for tea and snacks. Rachel was overwhelmed. But two people brought cakes (most of which we prevented ourselves and Rachel from eating) and she got to blow out two candles. Shortly after her birthday, she started going to the Number 2 Kindergarten in Shiqi town, Zhongshan City, Guangdong Province. It is about a 10-minutes walk from home, but Rachel can stretch it into 30 or more minutes when she walks home. She examines puddles, ramps, steps, curbs, passing vehicles (especially walking tractors), the chickens in one front yard, and the regulars who wave at her or come out to touch her.
Culture shock: For a long time Rachel would just stick her thumb in her mouth and and ask us to pick her up when anyone else wanted to talk to her or pick her up. She has been subjected to a lot of physical and vocal attention here; we had expected as much. But she has gradually begun to deal with the attention a bit more confidently. After our students assault her, she will ask us “They just want to be Rachel’s friends?” She dodges or brushes aside most passing maulers now, and lets one or two of the more familiar people pick her up. But for the first two months or so, she was in deep culture shock and very fussy and clingy. She still won’t say “thank you” or “good-bye” to anyone in either Chinese or English.
It was as hard for us as it was for her the first day we dropped her off at kindergarten. It was really sink or swim. She had had some setbacks in her toilet-training because of all the travel and stress she went through just before her second birthday. The first week of kindergarten, she wet her pants at least once a day, she wasn’t napping the required three hours [!] each day, and she was clinging pretty close to the principal all day. But now, she talks happily about “Rachel’s new aunties” and “Rachel’s school” (it helps that Mama and Daddy also have a school), rarely comes home with wet clothes, and is almost always in a pleasant, curious, and talkative mood all the way home and into the evening. She enjoys us a lot more when she isn’t with us all day long. She’s had a rough time but she’s grown up a lot in the last two months. She won’t even suck her thumb (considered a vile habit in this dirty environment) while she’s at school anymore. It may get worse, but the terrible twos don’t seem so terrible now that she’s actually two.
Physical development: She is increasingly confident—even reckless—on her feet: running, climbing, jumping, sliding down long slides. She almost has a swagger when she walks by herself. She loves to swim. We’ve been several times to hotel pools and she’s enjoyed leaping or falling off the side into our arms. She has very good control in her hands now. She can put up one finger or two fingers easily, and just recently managed to put up three fingers (the last 3) on the first try. We were all quite proud.
Intellectual notes: She is delightfully curious about all the new things around us, and wants to “see” every noise she hears. She loves to stop and inspect the snails, dragonflies, grasshoppers, and butterflies we encounter in our walks. She has an amazing memory. She can remember exactly where she put something hours ago, can remember what she saw where on a previous walk, and can remember who gave her things. We’ll say “Do you want to walk on the sand?” And she’ll say “Rachel want to walk on sand with Rachel’s new pink shoes from Rachel’s Grandma Grandpa.” She often asks “What’s that from?”—even about the toothpaste.
One of her games is to tell you one thing (“That Winnie Pooh”), then tell you something contradictory (“That not Winnie Pooh”). If you react with appropriate surprise, she will exclaim delightedly, “Rachel tricking Mama!” She can keep it up until you have trouble feigning surprise. Daddy said to her one day, “Rachel’s a talking trickster and a walking tractor.” She adapted that to “Rachel trickster, Rachel tractor, Rachel walking tractor.”
Language notes: Over the past two months, Rachel has been filling in a lot of the unstressed words she hears between the major words: prepositions, pronouns, adverbs, and conjunctions. One week it would be from, the next week with, the next w’out. She hasn’t got the and a figured out, and still uses Rachel instead of I, me, my but her English is more and more grammatical. She has now got the /s/ sound under control, so she distinguishes Rachel and Rachel’s, but she still has trouble with /p, b/ and /k, g/. She also just recently managed to make her Dayto sound a little more like Rayto, but the old habit of saying Dayto will take a while to break. Recently she has been playing with doubling words: “This Rachel Rachel; that Daddy Daddy.” [In retrospect, I think this may have been prompted by Chinese usage in her kindergarten, where she was called Qiuqiu, from her Chinese name Liqiu ‘beautiful autumn’. She was greeted every day like a visiting celebrity, with shouts of Qiuqiu lai le ‘Qiuqiu has come!’—J.] Not much progress in Chinese yet, but she can count from 1 to 5 (sometimes 10) in Chinese, and can follow simple directions at school.
We are amazed by her eagerness to read. She knows all the letters of the alphabet by name. We bought her a little magnetic board with all 26 letters and she plays with it each time she sits on the potty. It makes for some long potty sessions. She’ll keep playing with the letters long after she has done her business. Her demand as soon as she sits down is, “Rachel want to play with these letters,” followed shortly now with “Spell something, spell something.”
UPDATE: This child is now a 24-year-old teacher in Boston’s Chinatown.