Friday, October 14, 2005

It's so weird sometimes... and Yom Kippur thoughts

Jacob ran off after school with his Aussie friend Felix, both of whose parents work at the school. Eli is across the street at the home of Brendan, his Hong Kong Chinese/Brit pal, along with Maurits, his German-speaking Austrian- Dutch bud. The three of them are the best of friends. So I came home and went to the kitchen to grab a glass of water on my way up to the computer.

I walk in and find the full domestic staff there. Mr. Li has bags of groceries on the floor and is sitting at the table with reading glasses on making notes in a little writing pad. Ying Yoo is ironing our sheets in the middle of the room, a basket of laundry at her feet, and Ding Ayi is hovering over Anna at the table as she shovels some chunky, custardy yogurt which would send the boys screaming in the other direction into her mouth as fast as possible.

Now, I am not complaining and neither am I rubbing it in. I am just stating a fact; it is weird getting used to having so much help. You wear something and the next day it is back in the drawer, crisply folded. We were speaking with someone at the break fast last night and she was asking how our transitions were going, how the kids were doing, etc. We said everything is great, blah blah but the mornings remain a scrum.. just getting everyone up and dressed and breakfasted and out the door on time.

"Why don’t you have your ayis helping you?"

"They don't start that early."

"Well, change that or hire another ayi just for the morning."

"Now, we're not used to that. We don’t need another person buzzing around our house at 7 am.”

"Get over it."

So It goes. It's such a strange balance of relationships. These people all work so diligently and are so earnest and sincere. Of course, as much as they seem to be working, they are incredibly cushy jobs relative to what’s out there – especially working for us americans who are embarrassed by the whole thing. On the one hand, you have this constant sense that the chinese are gearing up to bury us and ours is an empire on the decline (hastened along by our idiot boy prince and his corrupt, myopic regime). On the other hand, we are here living like British tea plantation overseers in India, circa 1900. "More tonic water, Gunga Din!"

So how do you get used to that?

Services were nice. It is a very nice congregation filled with interesting people. Just for instance, Roberta Lipson, one of the real machers, has been here 20 years or more. She founded and is the chairperson of United Hospitals of Beijing, which is the only real first class hospital in town (and I am very happy to keep her card in my wallet at all times.) Her husband is the correspondent for the Economist. We also sat with a guy from the Embassy who was brought over here this year to try and get the chinese to get real about copyright protection... which brings us to the several intellectual rights lawyers there. Then there was the Jewish economist from DC who is, like me, that rare bird -- the male trailing spouse. He came over with his Chinese wife, who was sent over by her DC law firm where she is a partner to open a Beijing office. She gave me her card and I saw she was a "Dr." "What is your PHD in?" "Applied physics." Wow. Interestingly, of everyone I have met, she was probably the least happy to be expating in China. She thought she had left this behind and felt guilty about dragging her family here. I would think she’d be happy her two young kids will be exposed to her culture.

Anyhow, it is an interesting and welcoming community of people and I'd have to say that the services felt a bit more meaningful than usual. In some ways, they are more like every day life -- lots of talk in a language I can’t understand. But the melodies and rhythms are so familiar, and that is really comforting when everything else is so different. Also, being part of a congregation of 100 or so is much more intimate, of course, than the gigunda events at home this time of year, and you feel that your presence is much more important. Being this small group gathered together in a ballroom in the middle of this huge city where no one really is aware that it is in any way a day any different from any other also makes you feel like a tiny minority. Of course, we are a tiny minority, but it is easy to forget that in NJ, where life stops and schools close on the Holy days.

Last week, the service was led by Rabbi Lee Diamond, retired and in from Israel for the week. He did a great job and felt like a very deep, real person to me. Someone I would like to talk to and would feel comfortable discussing matters of faith and anything else with. I really liked his sermon, which hinged on the question allegedly once asked by a congregant – “why would anyone convert and choose to become a Jew?” In answering he delved into the Havtorah portion read every year on Rosh Hashanah, which is – bear with me, folks – the story of Abraham taking Isaac up for the sacrifice. “Why,” he asked, “Would we by design read this very torturous passage each year on this day?” Now, I have to admit, I have wondered this myself, a surprising as most of you might find this news.

Being Hebrew illiterate, I always read vast swaths of English text at services and that story kills me every time. I mean, what does it really say about our God and religion? Is this something we want to embrace? What would we say if someone was found about to stab his son with the explanation that god told him to do it? I have been haunted by this in the past. He discussed briefly the various theories about this and one of them, which he subscribed to, was that it was in fact Abraham testing god rather than vice versa. I had never considered this before and found it interesting.

But his bottom line conclusion was, “Life is real and it is difficult and it takes serious people thinking seriously to stay on top of it. Life is not Santa Claus and Easter bunnies.” And that’s why someone might choose to be Jewish. Agree or disagree, and believe me he said it more eloquently. The point is, he gave a thoughtful sermon that I can largely remember and still be moved by 10 days later. When was the last time that happened to you?

So why wasn’t he leading the service? During the prayer for good health, when congregants can mention the name of anyone needing physical or spiritual healing, the lay leader said, “And a special mention to Rabbi Lee Diamond who had a serious health scare this week.”

Afterwards, I saw the Rabbi and wished him a Happy New Year and said I was sorry to hear he had a problem and happy he seemed to be okay. Firmly shaking my hand, he said, “I had one day of Rosh Hashanah then I had a stroke. I spent the week in the hospital. But here I am.”

Wow. We also mentioned the name out loud of the father of a good friend who is having some potentially serious surgery this week. You know who you are if you’re reading this, so know that we sent our prayers and love his way all the way from China. I hope it helps.

That’s all for now. Gotta go see what Mr. Li is cooking up down there. Smells good.