China adoption diary: School lunch, sisterly guidance, and hamburgers

Madeleine begins the first week of school with one new backpack and a competitively delicious packed lunch. Ignoring parental and sisterly directive, she boldly opts out for a school lunch – leaving Mom scratching her head.

By , Guest Blogger

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    Prepared and smiling, the Belsie girls begin their first week of school. Holding her prized Hello Kitty bag, Madeleine sits with her sister Grace.
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Our two daughters headed back to school recently, and the experience of sending them off to fend for themselves at the elementary school up the street has been, for me, emotional, amusing, and problematic.

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On the morning of the BIG DAY, Grace was awake by 6 a.m., buzzing with anticipation. We had everything in the “go” position: Her outfit was ready, the backpack had been strategically checked multiple times, and we knew what we had to do to get Madeleine ready. Little sister had had trouble getting up in the morning for most of the summer – lazing around in the bed was her specialty. But, to our surprise, we spotted her wandering around squinty-eyed in the hallway at 6:45, trying to figure out what all the fuss was about.

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Grace helped her to get dressed, and I got the breakfast ready. As they were eating their yogurt, I made a big production of making their bag lunches for school. We had gone the extra mile and bought Madeleine a new Hello Kitty lunch bag that had caught her fancy. I never understood the attraction of the bespangled patent leather tote in the shape of a cat’s head. Grace took the more understated route and decided to reprise last year’s classic Land’s End lunch sack.

I made Madeleine her summer favorite: ham sandwich on a hamburger bun plus little carrots and a couple of cookies. Oh yes, and a small bottle of Sunny D which, if you read the label carefully, admits that it contains only 5 percent real juice.

In the final drill, Grace and I reviewed once again how she would go to the cafeteria with her classmates and eat her nice lunch. Well, that was the hope.

I took the girls over to the bus stop while Laurent stayed behind in an effort to delimit the chances of boo-hooing once the bus came. There was general excitement among the parents and siblings gathered for this important letting-go moment. Instead of just waving to the kids and sniffling, almost every parent had some sort of tech device with which to capture this fundamental rite of passage: Cell phones were jabbed out into the air for picture taking; someone had a laptop and was making a short movie of the departure.

I took the old-school route and waved and tried to swallow down the lump in my throat. All I could think about was calling my mother and telling her all about it. She passed on two weeks after we returned from China and never got to meet her new, much-anticipated granddaughter.

The house seemed unusually quiet and empty when I got back inside, but I had a lot of work to do so the time passed relatively quickly – though I must admit I wondered a time or two about the homemade lunches with notes tucked inside.

There was a good bit of excitement in the afternoon when the bus was due back at 3. The dog and I took up our position at the intersection and were ready when the big yellow bus appeared on our street.

I could see Grace waving from the darkened window. Then here they came, hand in hand across the street, and Grace looked  vexed.
“What’s wrong?” I asked tentatively.

Grace sighed, “Well, I don’t know how this happened, but she didn’t eat her lunch. She went through the line and got a hamburger instead!”
How was this possible? She didn’t have any money with her, I thought stupidly. But the obsession with hamburgers is strong with Madeleine, and when she smells a grilled patty, even of the institutional variety, she has to act.

Grace, of course, was appalled by the impropriety of it all. We got inside and I tried to explain to Madeleine that she was to eat the Hello Kitty lunch, and please not to get into the line again. I tried to show her the school menu and explain that when there was another hamburger day, she could buy her lunch.

In return, I got a stone-faced expression, then a nod yes with the head, then eyes bright with tears.

I felt like a garden variety ogre.  

Grace was full of happy chat about fifth grade, how it felt good to have a “mature schedule” where you change from teacher to teacher for the various subjects. Even lunch went well for her, and social aspects can be a challenge due to some embedded cliques among the 10-year-olds.    

As for Madeleine, we tried to ask her what she did in her Sheltered English Immersion classroom but we got very little response. Lately it has been particularly frustrating for me to try so hard to speak reasonable Chinese to her and not to get much in return. At times, it can feel as though we are living our lives in parallel linguistic universes.

Day 2 went fine. I sent in $2 to the teacher so she could pay the cafeteria for the hamburger. After school, we did manage to learn that Madeleine had colored a picture of a dog during the day. There had also been some discussion of the numbers five and six. OK, so that’s progress.

By the end of the first half week, everything seemed to have settled into a nice routine. But when the bus arrived in the afternoon, Grace reported gruffly, “Well, she did it again. She got in line for the stuffed crust pizza!”

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This time, I must admit I felt a little put out.

If understanding the daily lunch routine in her new American school seemed overwhelming to Madeleine, what hope was there that she’d grasp addition and subtraction taught in English?  

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