Spending the Summer in Shanghai is Forcing Me to Learn Mandarin

I have not posted lately due to several factors, including helping to coach my son’s soccer team, watching my son play baseball, keeping my soon-to-be-four-year-old daughter occupied, and the usual day-to-day stuff of trying to keep a household functioning.

One the biggest factors though is that our family is preparing for a long trip to China. My wife has been hired to teach two courses as part of a Summer Study Abroad program in Shanghai at the Shanghai International Studies University.

We’ll be in Shanghai for over five weeks starting in July. We’re hoping to take some side trips to Beijing, the Great Wall, Suzhou, and several other places. On our way back home, we have a two night layover in Hong Kong. I wish we could stay longer in Hong Kong, but hotels there are very expensive.

We’re very excited and even a little intimidated about the trip. I’ve been told that Shanghai is very cosmopolitan, being China’s financial center and with over 150,000 expats living there. That sounds like a lot of expats. And it is. But Shanghai has over 23 million people. I’m not expecting English to be widely spoken and understood.

(What you should also keep in mind about Shanghai and its 23 million people is that that there were less than 17 million people in 2000. It added more than a third to its population in 10 years. It’s growing at a staggering rate.)

Since we’re going to be there for so long, and my wife is going to be teaching a good part of the day for four days a week, it will be up to me to navigate Shanghai with our son and daughter. So I’ve taken it upon myself to attempt to learn a bit of Mandarin Chinese.

I’ve started using Get Started in Mandarin Chinese with Two Audio CDs: A Teach Yourself Guide. Like most Americans, or Westerners in general, the difficulty is with the tones. For example, if I mispronounce hao in the greeting ni hao I can end up saying “You number” instead of “hello.” Though the grammar appears to be much more simple than a language like French, which has more than a dozen tenses and “moods.”

I asked some Chinese friends of mine to suggest some talk radio sites that would allow me to listen over the internet. I don’t expect to understand much. But listening to the speakers on the radio helps to “tune in” so to speak to the rhythm and tones of the language.

For the next month, I’m going to be practicing some Mandarin, making a list of things to bring, and making a list of things to see and do in Shanghai, (and blogging just a little).

We’re going to Shanghai! I can’t wait.

Me Versus Stay-At-Home-Moms!

My snappy headline promising a Battle Royale, where I, a Stay-At-Home-Dad (SAHD), take on several legions of Stay-At-Home Moms got you, didn’t it? In so many cases, articles with these kinds of headlines set up false dichotomies in order to make a conflict appear where one doesn’t really exist.

Yesterday I wrote about the media-manufactured “Dad Wars” article in Salon. That war does not exist, except in the minds of Internet traffic-starved journalists and the editors who edit them.

What does exist is a tension between moms who want to hold onto their historically mom-centered spaces and the handful of SAHDs who want to enter them. This tension is not going to go away anytime soon because the number of dads who stay at home has been growing.

Among fathers with a wife in the workforce, 32% took care of their kids at least one day a week in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, which looked at families with children under 15 years old. That’s up from 26% in 2002.

Of those with kids under the age of 5, 20% of dads in 2010 were the primary caretaker.

How much and for how long this growth will continue is unknown. But the very existence of SAHDs is disruptive. It undermines our notions of Traditional Manhood.

On the whole, most moms are surprised yet supportive when they find out I’m a SAHD. But they’re almost always under the age of 45. If they’re older, I sometimes get a suspicious look. Or the conversation comes to a dead halt. But there is always the occasional retirement-aged woman who looks at me with delight and says that she thinks what I’m doing is wonderful.

I can honestly say I haven’t had any negative comments directed at me to my face. Though there was one older woman who gave me a derisive “Hmmph” as if to tell me I wasn’t a real man. It was so over the top that I smiled and suppressed a laugh. Then for some reason she went on a rant about how Barack Obama was stealing the election from Hillary Clinton (this was the Spring of 2008), and no she could not possibly be a racist because she had ancestors from North Africa, blah, blah, blah.

Sometimes, when I encounter someone like that wacky woman, I like to hang back and see just how far they’re going to go with what they say. (For a writer, it’s far more interesting to get people to speak wholly unguarded.) After the Barack-hating woman left, the mothers I was with (this had occurred after a Kids’ Gym class at the YMCA) were appalled for me. I laughed and told them nothing about it bothered me, coming from such an unbalanced person. The mothers and I had been getting along fairly well. Later, that summer, they included me and my children in an outing to meet up with out our kids’ Kids’ Gym instructor at a local beach.

Husbands, even those who are Gen-Xers like me, are sometimes a different story. One father, upon me telling him what I did, said to me, “Oh-ho-ho! One of those…” with a bit of a laugh. He lives in the neighborhood. We haven’t become close. Though his wife, a Very Involved Mom, has always been friendly toward me time and again. I’m still not sure what  “one of those…” means.

That’s pretty much the extent of the negativity I’ve encountered. I consider myself fortunate. Other dads or SAHDs have encountered far worse.

There was the high profile case last year of a dad not being allowed to join the Golden Gate Mothers Group. This goes to show you that even in the Liberal, Gay-Celebrating, Shangri-La of San Francisco, a large segment of moms wants to hold on to their mom-centered spaces even at the cost of discriminating against a gay dad.

The group maintains that women’s ability to be frank and comfortable in their interactions would be inhibited by the presence of men.

Just switch out “women” for “men,” and vice versa, and you have the rationale that has been used to exclude women from historically male places, the kind of exclusion that Feminism has fought against.

These kinds of exclusionary rules are dumb. Though if I was living in San Francisco I personally don’t think the moms in the GGMG are the kind of people I would even want to associate with. When you’re part of a Mothers Group that takes in $300,000 annually, you’re a group of Professional Moms. I have a lot of thoughts about these Professional Moms (and Dads). They’re the kinds of people who obsess about the IQ tests their children will take before they can be admitted to a stellar Pre-School….But I digress. It’s an issue dealing with class and I’ll have to save all of that and more for another post.

But I will say this: there’s a big difference between a SAHD or gay dad trying to get into a Moms’ Group and a woman trying to get into an all-male club like Augusta National.

I use Augusta National because yesterday I mentioned the controversy over the club not yet extending an invitation to the current CEO of IBM, who happens to be a woman. There are currently no female members of Augusta National. August National is a hallmark of power and prestige in the world-at-large that usually includes as a member the CEO of IBM. Being a member there provides access to serious amounts of Elite Social and Political Capital. Keeping women out means keeping women from having access to those formal networks of power and influence.

A moms’ group is just that: a social club. Moms groups don’t always have a whole lot of power except maybe in the local PTO or school board elections. Now, in big urban areas these moms’ groups (like the GGMG) can become large nonprofit behemoths that organize outings to places like playgrounds and zoos, provide support for its members, and offer tips on everything from pre-schools to pediatricians to breast pumps.

These groups are useful and necessary. For new moms, shocked and overwhelmed with the demands of caring for a newborn, these groups are often a lifeline.

During my first year as a SAHD I was very insecure because I was often the only adult male in the room for these kid activities. Part of it was because I was learning how to be a stay-at-home parent (planning meals, cooking, grocery shopping, keeping up with laundry, trying to keep the house from looking like a disaster area, supporting my wife in her high-stress job, finding time to write, etc.). Part of it was because I was the only guy in the room and I was acutely aware that I was perceived by some as an invader.

The cues are subtle. It’s a look, a hushing of voices, a hand on the elbow to pull their companion away so that I’m out of earshot, or not even acknowledging that I’m there at all.

If a woman is uncomfortable with my presence as a SAHD in a given place, she’s not someone I’d want as a friend to begin with. It’s how I rationalize this particular behavior. It’s not altogether different than the way I dealt with people who were uncomfortable with me being a non-drinker shortly after I quit drinking. I can’t make women comfortable with my presence on the playground, at story time in the library, or at music class, times when I am often the only dad in the room. I try to be my usual friendly self. Other than that, there is nothing for me to do.

As more dads become stay-at-home parents, maybe more women (and their husbands) will get comfortable seeing men in that role. In the way more men are now more comfortable with women in the workforce.

This is not to say we have reached equality in the workplace. Women are still underpaid and sexual harassment is still a problem. Women are marginalized in high-tech industries because of the frat-culture that pervades those fields (witness the antediluvian phenomenon known as the “brogrammer”). Because of those past and present issues of sexism, is it any wonder that many women see men, even in the role as SAHDs, as a predatory presence?

Change in the stay-at-home realm will be slow, just as it has been slow in the workplace. Women have to see that men can be a non-threatening presence while doing childcare work. Just as men have had to learn to see women in positions of power as doctors, CEOs, lawyers, and Senators, etc.

Only when stay-at-home-moms get used to seeing SAHDs, and frat-culture is at least pushed to the margins in the workplace, will moms’ comfort level with SAHDs rise. You can think of this as a form of liberation for men. We no longer have to have our worth measured solely by the size of our paycheck.

Or maybe us SAHDs will be derided like so many moms for “taking the easy way out” and “abandoning” our careers in order to care for our own children.

No, We Most Certainly Don’t Need Any So-Called “Dad Wars”

There was a recent article in Salon that is provocatively titled, “Rise of the Dad Wars.” Ugh, I thought when I saw the title. Do we really have to have a new media-manufactured “war” in which we’re all supposed to take sides?

No, we do not.

Just as we did not need any so-called “Mommy Wars.” Whenever I think of the phrase “Mommy Wars,” I see images of stylishly-coifed, pant suit-wearing women with briefcases and smartphones, squaring off against T-shirt and sweat pants-wearing mommies in yellow latex gloves with disheveled hair, and burp cloths over their shoulders.

This, of course, has never happened. Oh, sure, you can find some nutjob people on the margins either decrying working mothers, mothers who breast feed in public, mothers who feed their infants Similac, or whatever. But for the most part, this is a media-manufactured debate whose sole purpose appears to be to make women feel guilty regardless of the choices they and their partners make about raising children.

(It should be noted that there is as yet no guilt-machine ray gun aimed at fathers who choose to work outside the home after the birth of their children.)

About that Salon article. The title worked as it was designed to work; I could not help but read the article. Here’s a choice paragraph from it.

And Russ, a Minnesota stay-at-home father of two young daughters, thinks that “When you overlay the gender role a man is supposed to have in our society with the notion of being a stay-at-home parent, there’s a lot that’s very hard for people to understand.” He says that one of the first misconceptions is that a man at home is a man who has it easy. “It’s really hard,” he says. “It’s really, really hard to be a man in a traditional women’s role. Nurturing children is an extremely difficult job. I have guys say to me, ‘How did you get this gig?’ My response is that if more men stayed home with their children, they’d be getting their wives a lot less pregnant.”

Emphasis mine. Yes, and in this case, this dad is no longer able to get his wife pregnant precisely because he was the one who did not want to have anymore children. I know the time and effort that it would take to raise a third child. If my wife ends up pregnant, either she or my urologist will have some explaining to do.

The crux of Russ’ problem is this: the assumption that being a stay-at-home parent is easy. Nurturing children IS an extremely difficult job, one most men are sometimes ill-equipped to handle at first because being a nurturing person is not something that men are traditionally expected and trained to be. This does not mean that men can’t be nurturing. Every stay-at-home-dad proves that wrong.

But this also gets us off-track. By putting the idea out there that being a stay-at-home parent is easy, we continue to devalue the work of childcare. Which in-turn makes it easy to dismiss the work of stay-at-home parents and their concerns, especially women.

There’s a big catch to this article though. If you read through the rest of it you’ll notice that this isn’t a dads vs. dads “Dad Wars.” It’s a Stay-At-Home-Moms vs. Stay-At-Home-Dads War. There are several incidents relayed. In one instance, a play group of moms kicked a SAHD out of it, because he was a man. Ouch.

There are many spaces, such as playgrounds and toddler classes, that are Mommy Spaces. And mommies feel threatened when a father enters that space. (Grandmothers and grandfathers are okay on a temporary basis.)

You can understand mommies feeling threatened or uncomfortable. Women are already made to feel guilty about “abandoning their career” to stay at home. They get used to having a group consisting of other mothers to chat with and confide in who are in the same situation, and they get used to these spaces being for mommies. Then along comes a stay-at-home-dad to throw off the carefully-calibrated climate of comfort, blissfully unaware that his presence lowers the temperature in the space to an icy chill.

Men would never act this way, right? Please. They’ve been acting this way since women began to enter the workforce en masse. And they often continue to act this way.For example, the CEO of IBM is a woman. Historically the CEO of IBM has been invited to be a member of Augusta National, where the Masters golf tournament is played. IBM has been a long-time sponsor of the Masters. Augusta National does not admit women. Hence, the recent uncomfortable headlines surrounding the Masters Tournament. It just goes to show that there are still many spaces where women are seen as a threat, no matter how outmoded that type of thinking is.

This is not to justify these kinds of exclusionary actions. I think it’s wrong. Tomorrow I’ll write a bit about my own experiences as being the only guy in the room.