Chapter Seven: China with A Towheaded Six-Year-Old
By the winter of 2011, when Jake was in kindergarten, I had worked at the same law firm for twenty-three years, advancing from associate to equity partner. But the firm had changed, and my priorities had changed. My life needed a change, too. Thanks to the history department at Fudan University in Shanghai (which admitted me to a non-degree graduate program), we obtained the needed visas and residency permits we needed for my plan to work. In August 2011, Jake and I moved to Shanghai.
With his blond hair, blue eyes, and long dark eyelashes, six-year-old Jake attracted too much attention. Everywhere we went in China (outside the expat bubble we lived in at the Shanghai Racquet Club), people stared at Jake and took his picture. Eventually, Jake learned to deal with the unwanted attention, though he never cooperated with his harassers or agreed to pose with anyone.
Jake and I both went to school. To the chagrin of his teacher at the Shanghai American School, Jake learned to speak Mandarin with a “low-class” Sichuan accent—learned from our ayi (housekeeper) Xi’e—instead of with the proper accent taught by his teacher. And to my surprise, Fudan exceeded my expectations. Rather than merely providing an excuse for the needed residency permits, the classes I took ended up enriching my experience living in China. Teaching me, among other things, how differently the Chinese see the world and the twentieth century. As the first semester ended, I decided Jake would learn more if we spent the next two months traveling around China than he would in class. I had not yet heard the terms world schooling or unschooling, but without consciously joining a very self-conscious movement, that was what we did. Jake learned literature when we read Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban on the beach in Sanya on Hainan Island, he learned math and science in Harbin when the night-time lows reached the point where temperatures are the same in Celsius and Fahrenheit (–40 degrees), and he learned ancient Chinese history and art in Xi’an among the life-size terracotta warriors.
After six months in China, Jake and I returned to Chicago to the same house, job, and school, but we were different people.