Thursday, February 4, 2016

Decisions, decisions

One of the most nerve-wracking and head-achey decisions you have to make as a parent in the Netherlands is which basisschool to send your kid to.  First of all, it doesn't help that they start during the academic year during which your kid turns 4, so for a November baby like kidlet that means he gets to start at the ripe old age of 3.  Secondly, it turns out that there are at least 4 different teaching principles that different schools can follow, so there actually is a big difference between the schools and therefore the only way you can tell which school has what available is to go see the school itself.  Most schools have an opendag, where parents can come in for a quick talk about the education principles of the school (Jenaplan, for instance, or Brede plan) and take a tour of the facilities.  So that's what I've been busy with this past month, visiting every school nearby and taking in the pros and cons of the places.

In Nijmegen, at least, you're allowed to pick six basisscholen, ranked in order of preference.  You fill out the form online, and then in a few weeks or months you get a letter in the mail telling you which school you can send your kid to. And the problem, at least from a "which school is better" standpoint, is that all Dutch schools have to guarantee that your kid will become literate and know how to add and subtract, at least.  One school is not "better" than the other, educationally-speaking.  This actually sets a lot of worries about picking the "right" school away and lets you focus on picking, well, the right school.

The part that makes this such a headache is that there are a lot of schools.  In our area (meaning within a 3-mile radius) there are at least 8 schools we could theoretically send kidlet to. Some of them are much farther away than others, and obviously distance factors into the decision quite a bit.  Most of them are ordinary schools, meaning that they follow a standard curriculum, but some of them follow the Jenaplan system and there are a few Montessori schools as well.  So it really does depend on what you think is best for your kid.

Things that I've discovered about myself:  diversity matters a lot more to me than I thought it did.  I mean, I don't mind kidlet attending the peuterspeelzaal where literally every child is some shade of blonde except kidlet.  It's a good peuterspeelzaal and the teachers are patient and kind, and kidlet's Dutch is improving in leaps and bounds, but he's still not speaking Dutch 100% yet and it's getting down to the wire as to whether or not he needs logopedie (speech therapy). But the proportion of blonde versus non-blonde kids is highly indicative (at least so far, in my experience) of whether the school has experience dealing with bilingual kids.   I would mind a lot less about the lack of diversity in some schools that I've visited if they were able to give me a shred of confidence that they had the experience of dealing with bilingual kids, but one of them just point-blank told me, "We don't have any facilities or experience with that."

And, well, frankly--there is something to be said about attending a school with kids from all kinds of backgrounds. I mean, okay, I get that this is the Netherlands, that most people are white and and tall and blonde.  But a lot of the issues and microaggressions and finer points of not-being-racist would be greatly mitigated if people grew up in a diverse environment, I think.

Friday, January 8, 2016

There's this prevalent notion floating about on the Internet that we are in a "post-racial" era.  That declaring,"I'm colorblind! I don't even notice race!" is the same thing as saying, "There's no such thing as racism!"

Except a) we're not in a post-racial world, and b) if you truly "don't notice" race, then you're either deaf, dumb, and blind, or an idiot, because everybody notices if the person they're talking to is different.  Especially if the answer she gives to the question, "So where are you from?" is not what they expect it to be.

Granted, racism these days is not expressed by burning crosses and telling black people to GTFO of wherever it is they're "not supposed" to be.  Not usually, anyway.  And in Europe, it's conflated (especially now) with religious animosity against Muslims, and in the Netherlands, the yearly Zwarte Piet debacle.  I'm not going to offer any solutions; as an expat, my understanding of local politics is limited to "Well, that's dumb" and swearing at the IND every time they demand that I cough up 228 euros for an ID card that's apparently no longer valid once you get a Dutch passport.

But I can tell you what racism looks like, since a lot of people don't seem to realize that they are committing these "microaggressions" when they're "just making small talk." And honestly, I know that they're trying to be friendly, but unlike most Chinese people in Europe (I would imagine--I haven't met that many) I actually possess the vocabulary to spell out exactly what's so wrong about and why it's so horrible.

I'll give you 2 examples:

  1. Karel's friend is really big into traditional Chinese medicine and yoga and Eastern medicine.  Whatever. That's his thing. If he wants to talk a blue streak about it, well, I'm cool with that. I'm not a believer--and frankly, acupuncture is just creepy to me. And he said, "I never thought I'd have to argue for TCM with someone from China." Which is just irritating, even without taking into account that he knows me well enough to know that I grew up in the US, attended a medical school, worked in biology, and don't cook Chinese food and instead make a mean stamppot
  2. I was at the printer's, getting something printed out in preparation for a client meeting, and the guy who's helping me...actually doesn't start up with the whole "So where are you from?" line of questioning.  Nope, instead he seems surprised that kidlet speaks a mix of Dutch and English, and asks me what other languages I speak.  I tell him that we speak Dutch and English to him.  And then he asks me what my mother tongue is.  I tell him it's English (because it is). And then he asks me if I speak Chinese to kidlet.  And then he makes a comment about kidlet's big eyes, somehow completely missing the fact that kidlet's hair is definitely brown, not black, and assuming that he's Asian rather than a halfie.  (I mean, okay, kidlet definitely takes after me in terms of facial features, but how do you miss the fact that his hair is brown?  Especially when I'm right next to him for comparison? I know I'm going gray but I swear it's not that bad yet).
Do these incidents mark the end of the world? No. But here's the thing that white people don't get:  we can't talk about racism without dealing with all of the subconscious baggage that you guys have about what someone is "supposed" to be like.  And that's the thing with subconscious baggage--you can swear on your life, and even believe, that you don't see color/race, but subconsciously, things register, and slowly but surely they color the lens through which you perceive the world. And you can swear on your life that you don't hate [race] people, but hate isn't the problem. It's the thousand invisible things that you guys do that grate on our nerves, but woe be the one who says anything about it, lest she appear "too sensitive". 

But every time you do one of those things, you're feeding a machine that tells people that they are limited by the color of their skin and their ancestry, telling people like me that being born somewhere determines who I am rather than the effort I've put into making something of myself.  You're telling me that you're only interested in my story if it fits your preconceived ideas of what an Asian person is doing living in the Netherlands. You're telling me that you, whom I've just met at the bus stop and am making idle talk to while we wait, know me better than I, who spent 34 years living my life and working out all the shit in my life, do. And maybe I'm presuming--but at least I'm aware that I'm doing so--but I do think that you'd be fucking pissed if I were to do the same to you.

And yet, every time this happens, I feel bad for the person I'm talking to.  I feel like it's my job not to let them down, or at least do so gently. I mean, I get it--they don't mean to be nasty, not like the jackholes who scream, "Konichiwa" at me as they ride by on their bikes (would that eye rolls be translated into bowling balls). And being polite has always been second-nature to me.  But still--why should I have to be the only one swallowing my discomfort just so the person I'm talking to--the one who started this--doesn't have to feel bad?  

Answer: because nobody wants to be "the supersensitive" wilting flower that can't take a comment the right way. Even if it's the one making the comment who could do better.  

Monday, January 4, 2016

Yes, he's allowed to say that

As long as we're dredging up my list of parenting fails, there's this:  

Kidlet tells me, "I don't like you," at least once a day.  Sometimes many times a day.  And you know what?  I'm cool with it.

Because, if we're going to be honest, I tell him that, too.  Not quite as often, and usually when he's in the preliminary phases of pitching a fit, those moments after me putting my foot down about something but before he's totally lost control.  Because, in those moments, I don't like him.  He's yelling, getting worked up--it's a 50/50 chance whether he's able to listen.  If he is, then he can usually be talked down.  If he isn't, then it's a toddler-drama-rama all around.

Here's the thing, though:  I don't tell him, "If you do this then I'll like you again." I do tell him that I love him, frequently and on a whim.  He'll eventually work out that liking someone isn't the same as loving someone, and that just because you love someone doesn't mean they can't annoy the bejesus out of you once in a while.  

And I like to think that he's going to internalize that it's OK not to be liked.  When he tells me, "I don't like you," I tell him, "You don't have to like me.  You have to pick up your cars," or whatever it is that I asked him to do that prompts the declaration of not-liking mommy.  That it's OK to stick to your guns even if people don't like you.  That it's OK to tell people that they're being jerks.  

He doesn't have to like me when I tell him to pick up his trucks, and he doesn't have to like me when I tell him it's time for bed.  He's free to express his discontent verbally, which I think goes a long way towards not having it expressed in a screaming fit.  Because honestly, who in their right minds likes to be told where to go, what to do, what to wear, when to potty, how to do things, to keep quiet, not to yell, etc. all day?  So yeah.  He's allowed to not like me. 

Because when he comes to our bed at an ungodly hour of the morning; when he snuggles between us with a contented little sigh as he waits for me to get up; these and a thousand little things through all the days is love.  He loves us, we love him. Plain and simple.  That's always true, all the time.  Even if we don't like each other much at that moment.  

Sunday, January 3, 2016

I Give Zero F*cks


There's always a lot of talk about regulating screen time, how you shouldn't let your kid stew in front of the TV all day and so on and so forth.  And I agree with that, for the most part: watching TV all day every day is a terrible waste of time.  But playing with a tablet?  That's a little more nuanced.  Most people agree that it's impossible to keep a kid away from them, and that a strategic retreat is needed:  they set limits (30 minutes) or take them away for not doing chores or what-not.

Me?  I give zero f*cks about whether kidlet wants to spend his entire day playing with the damn iPad.  And here's why: I trust him to be smart enough to know when he's bored.  My only rules are:  1) no screens when eating (this is a family-wide thing, and it applies to Karel as well) and 2) no crying or whining when I tell him to put it away (i.e., when we need to go out, or when it's time for dinner).  If he does, then he loses the iPad for the rest of he day and the entire day thereafter.  It's a simple system that doesn't involve timers or some arbitrary limit.  And it works.  Yes, there were a few fits the first few days when he got his own iPad with new games, but after he worked out the rules for himself he's been pretty good about it and I don't have to fight with him to put it down.

I'm sure someone out there is having a heart attack reading this right now.  But here's the thing: after the first few days, when he spent close to 4 hours watching YouTube movies and playing with his apps, his using the iPad dropped, the same way it did with my phone. And now he spends maybe 30 minutes a day playing with the thing before he decides to pull out his cars or rediscover his "microbots" (hematite stones carved in a shape that resembled the microbots seen in Big Hero 6).  Or he'll ask us to fill the bathroom sink so that he can play with the water.  Or he'll get his crayons out of the closet.  Or ask me to take him to the playground.  Or...well, you get the idea: kid stuff.

Kids aren't stupid, and they'll work out when they've had enough.  Of course a new tablet, filled with fun apps, is going to absorb all of their attention, but it won't last.  It can't last--they just don't have the attention span or the ability to sit still that long.  It may take a little longer before they figure out their own limits, but there is a life beyond a tablet.  And of course you can use time with the tablet as a carrot as opposed to a stick, or set a time limit. But that doesn't teach them their own personal limits--it reinforces the idea that good things are scarce in this world so they need to have all the good things, all at once. And I know Freud has long since been discounted as a quack, but you have to wonder whether the (uniquely American) inability to moderate has something to do with this.

I wonder when we stopped listening to kids telling us what they want/need.  I mean, sure, they don't always know what's best for them, so it's up to us to make suggestions and make sure they know the rules.  But discipline isn't about teaching kids blind obedience to authority; it's about providing them with an appropriate frame in which to live their own lives. And that's the key, the "living their own lives" part, that I want for my kid.  It's not his job to make me happy.  His job is to grow up, my job is to give him what he needs to do that.  And part of that is really listening to him, accepting that sometimes that means pears and olives for breakfast instead of oatmeal, or taking him to the HEMA for a lunch date, just because.

I'm an atheist, but I do have faith:  that kidlet knows himself, and that as long as we continue to provide him with a bedrock of unconditional love and mutual respect, he'll turn out all right.  I wonder when people lost this faith--and what it will take for them to find it again. 

Friday, November 27, 2015

Hello Fresh!

I'm the penny pinching one in this household. Kidlet doesn't know what a penny is, yet, and Karel...well, I love the guy but tracking spending is not his forte.  Suffice it to say, then, that when Hello Fresh debuted in the Netherlands two years ago I laughed and told the guys selling subscriptions to fuck off.  

This is because they charge €39.99 for a box of 3 meals for 2 people.  That's €13.33 per meal, €6.66 per serving, folks. And they don't even come over and do the dishes for you. For someone who typically drives down the cost of dinner to €2-3 per person, it's ridiculous.  

But if I were to be completely honest...I can't deny that I wasn't tempted. Setting asid
e time every day to go grocery shopping is a bit of a drag, and that goes double if Karel isn't home to babysit kidlet while I run out for a carton of milk. 

These sort of subscription-boxes have been popular on both sides of the Atlantic for a while, now: they're supposed to simplify your life (or at the very least, your grocery shopping) while providing a good, homemade meal for the cost of a Value Meal at McDonald's (yeah...the Value Meals where I live...aren't, exactly).  You get all the ingredients you need, pre-measured in the quantities for however many people you're cooking for (minus a few basics, like olive oil, flour, milk) and then you just follow the directions on the menu card.  In their perfect world, you'd get a box every week, but forty euros a week for 3 dinners is obscene by any standard except Parisians'.  Fortunately it's easy to log onto the website and tell them when you want a box delivered, and with Hello Fresh, you're only obligated to buy two boxes at full price.

The good news is that Hello Fresh, at least, has really big portions, which works out well because we're two adults and one hungry kidlet.  The four measly potatoes you get for a stamppot might not look like much, but add a package of saurkraut and a couple of sausages and you've got an all-out meal.  There are vegetarian options as well, and they're tasty, too.

The bad news is that you kinda-sorta-hafta know how to cook first before you can make anything really tasty with it. For our box last week, we had mackerel wraps, saurkraut stamppot, and a vegetarian lasagna.  None of these required any special skills to make, but I can imagine that, if you're not used to cooking it would be kind of daunting, especially when it comes to making a roux for the cheese sauce with the lasagna, or some of the fancier cooking things that are required of you.  You don't  need a lot of kitchen utensils, and the ones that are recommended are the sort of things that most people would have. But then again, there was a time when we didn't have a baking sheet.  That being said, the recipes do taste something splendid--it says a lot when a three-year-old will eat eggplant and spinach without whining. 

I'm still kind of divided on whether it's good value; I feel like if they'd drop the price to 30 or even 35 euros I'd probably get the boxes a lot more often.  I mean, things like fresh pasta and smoked mackerel aren't exactly cheap at the supermarket, either, and after the peace of mind afforded by three days of only having to shop for things like milk and cat food, I can definitely see the value in having someone else do the thinking for you.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Getting help

It's no secret that kidlet is weird--the kid is great on long trips, for example, goes to bed without a problem most nights, loves olives and sunny-side-up eggs (but won't touch hard-boiled ones). But there's weird, and then there's worrying, and kidlet's particular brand of weirdness has had us mildly worried for a while. But it wasn't until I discovered that I'd have to register him for basischool next year that we decided to take the leap and have him independently assessed. Sending him to school next year when he's still using nonsense-words (in either language) just won't do.

And this is where the consultatiebureau really morphs from something merely very annoying to something that is a godsend, because all it took was one phone call, explaining what we've been observing, and someone came to our place, agreed that further assessments were needed, and an observer was placed in kidlet's peuterspeelzaal class to see if we were merely being overly-worried parents.

The observer, a licensed child development specialist, assured us that some of our worries would resolve themselves eventually, but some of our worries were justifiable ones and that it was a good thing that we'd called them. Early intervention can work wonders, but only if parents recognize that something is wrong, and  sometimes what's taken for granted as "of course it takes longer" can cross the line into an actual developmental delay, and the things that we should be worried about, according to the specialist, were straddling that line.

I'll admit, when I first had him, it was a PITA dragging a kidlet all the way to the consultatiebureau every month--even though we had a car by that point Karel was away more often than not, and I didn't get a bike again until last year, so that meant I either had to walk 40 minutes, or take a bus, beginning and ending my trip with a 15-minute walk. Suffice it to say that, while I was always glad for a healthy-baby report, it didn't always alleviate the peevishness from schlepping a kidlet around for almost an hour, just for people to tell me that everything was normal.  But they've been nothing but wonderful for us, outlining a plan of monitoring and interventions for the next six months that seems like a cross between .

For now, not much will change: kidlet will start seeing a speech therapist at the very least, and if there is space for him we'll increase his peuterspeelzaal time to three mornings a week. There was a recommendation that he attends a peutergym to allow him to move around in the ways that he seems to want to, and improve his kinesthetic awareness.  Hopefully this will be enough. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Paris! With an almost-3-year-old...

Paris!  What can I say? Despite being underwhelmed by it the last time I visited (though that was due largely to the fact that I was out €200 before I even got there and therefore could barely afford to eat) when I found out that Karel had never seen Paris properly, I was horrified and therefore decided that, rather than have an anniversary dinner in the quiet comfort of a gourmet restaurant appended to a hotel with kidlet being baby-sat by his aunt and uncle and cousins, we would drag a 3-year-old on a 5-hour train ride through a smog-ridden city and eat cheap food and walk until kidlet keeled over with exhaustion.

So you might be thinking that this might be a horror story about navigating Paris with a 3-year-old.  But actually, well, kidlet was very well-behaved the entire time.  When our train was stuck in Roosendal for over an hour, and then we had to take the slow train to Antwerp, there was only a minimum of fussing.  Then from Antwerp, we had to go to Brussels, which was another long slog and it was almost 3 pm by the time we were able to explain to someone at the Thalys (French high-speed rail company) what had happened and what we were trying to do.  It was slightly complicated due to the fact that I used e-tickets on my phone because printing stuff involved a headache-and-a-half (drivers for the printer not up-to-date with Windows 10, etc), and the Thalys service counter in Brussels Central for some reason couldn't look up the ticket information even though it was right on my phone, so our only recourse was to go to the main Thalys desk in Brussels-Midi.  Fortunately, news of the snafu at Roosendal had been sent down the pipeline well in advance, so one quick explanation to the people working the desk and we got a piece of paper and permission to board the next train to Paris.  And we were lucky to run into a sympathetic conductor--maybe it was just because we had kidlet with us--who was able to find seats for us in the first-class compartment, so that was nice.  So basically, by the time we arrived at our hotel we'd been on the road for 10 hours straight and it was a relief for all of us to crash and sleep, pretty much right away.

The next morning I'd planned on taking Karel and kidlet to the Eiffel tower and Notre Dame.  It was a beautiful day and kidlet got up at 6 am because he's kidlet and he always, come hell or high water, gets up at least an hour too early.  Karel had paid for breakfast at the hotel (ibis), so it was convenient and made more sense than wandering through the streets of Paris trying to find a place that doesn't charge €10 for a croissant, orange juice, and coffee.  I mean, yeah, the breakfast at the Hotel ibis was €10.50 but at least you had choices (croissant, madelines, pain au chocolate, fruit, yogurt, cheese, cold cuts, eggs) and decent coffee.

The Eiffel tower and Notre Dame were amusing just because they were sights you have to see for yourself, but I have to agree with Karel that the best part of the day wasn't the sights, it was walking through the streets, meandering along and looking at things that caught our fancy: a bag of dried lavender buds, for instance.  We were able to bribe kidlet into going quietly into Notre Dame with the promise of ice cream that we'd seen on our way there.  It was getting to see the sketchy parts of Paris and cramming ourselves into the Metro along with all of the other commuters.

The next day we wandered slowly through Montmarte, the neighborhood our hotel was in. Our destination was the Basilica du Sacre Coeur but we had five hours to find it before we needed to get our bags from the hotel, so we were in no rush.  It wasn't as if it was hard to miss, either--the church sits at the top of an enormous hill, flanked by gardens. We went up the hill the hard way--on foot, yes, even kidlet, who seemed more determined than ever to reach the top--but there were tram cars ferrying passengers up and down the hill. Entrance to the basilica is free (always a perk) but you had to pay €6 for the privilege of climbing 300 stairs to the dome--which, to my mind, was definitely worth it for the view, though on the day we went it was drizzling a bit and the rain had turned the marble as slick as ice, so going down--especially since kidlet still has the outsized head of most toddlers--was a challenge, to say the least.

Food was still shockingly overpriced.  Granted, the portions were probably a little bigger than they are in the Netherlands, but still:  €12.50 for a grilled-cheese sandwich is outrageous.  If it'd been me and Karel alone, no doubt we'd do a lot more walking to find places to eat that are off the beaten path--food tends to be cheaper the farther away it is from tourists--but kidlet, tough though he may be, can only trek so far. But the indifference and bad service that people always seem to complain about when they visit Paris wasn't really an issue for us.  Contrary to perceived wisdom, I think we actually got better service because we had kidlet.  I mean, people actually gave up their seats on the Metro when we got in.  And then the proprietor of a cafe we stopped at for coffee gave kidlet one of those Eiffel Tower miniatures that they sell on the streets, and two free cookies. The Rough Guide was right about Parisians loving children--though I think part of it was also that we weren't trying to wrestle a huge Quinny stroller into the rush-hour Metro.

We opted to bring what we called the kiddie-backpack, one of those child carriers people typically use for hiking, instead of the stroller (the one pictured here is not ours--it's just an example of the type of heavy-duty child carrier we have). Part of this was because Parisian streets are not nice to strollers--there are cobblestones and potholes, and some of them are very narrow and most of them are crowded.  Part of  this was because tucking a Quinny into the baggage compartment on the Thalys is nigh-impossible.  And it turned out that, in Montmarte, the hills are so steep that stairs are used rather than normal methods of paving them, so a stroller would have been nearly useless anyway.  Not to mention that there's no place to park strollers if you want to go inside places like the basilica or Notre Dame, and that if you're going to a cafe it's a lot easier to squeeze between tables if you're not pushing a stroller around.  We took it with us everywhere we went, even though kidlet spent most of the time running around--empty, it's bulky but lightweight, so it wasn't too much of a burden and it was nice to have for the times when kidlet couldn't go on any more.

Suffice it to say that Paris was fantastic.  It's true, what they say about doing things with people you love.  And passing on the sense of adventure to kidlet--well, what could be better?