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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.

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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.

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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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