That Time My Neighbour Abandoned Her Baby

I lived in the East African country of Rwanda for two years. It was my first stop on a five-year long (and counting) adventure living and traveling overseas. I had chosen Rwanda for rudimentary reasons: 1. Five months before moving to Africa I decided I wanted to move Africa. 2. I was offered a job in Rwanda. 3. Rwanda was in Africa.

I had many experiences in Kigali which challenged me to examine my worldview. I came to appreciate a “cash economy” for its insistence that you only buy stuff when you have actual currency in your wallet to pay for it. I learned to look at traditional marriage as a very practical, sensible way to sustain a culture. Whether brought together by intense romantic love or crippling loneliness or simple pragmatism, combining two incomes and two sets of extended family made for a sensible way to build a life that would extend beyond yourself.

Rwanda — well, if I am being honest — many of the countries on the African continent, also confirmed for me that pronatalism destroys the lives of women and children. The dictionary definition of pronatalism sounds so deceptively benign: “a belief that promotes the reproduction of sentient life.” How harmless is that? Life is a precious gift. It is a miracle to be born. A greater miracle still to be guided with care through an entire life that extends well beyond one’s birth. Why wouldn’t reproduction of sentient life be a good thing to promote?

And this is what my time in Africa revealed. The continent went well beyond simply “promoting” reproduction. It made reproduction of life the only way for a female person to claim womanhood. It was such a bizarre experience living in a part of the world that thought nothing of making the word ‘woman’ synonymous with the word ‘mother’ and thinking even less of the ramifications of this thinking on women who were not built for or interested in motherhood. I encountered more than a few women in Africa who seemed to feel the same way about children as I did: they were cute and funny, but not worth the time and energy necessary to keep them whole and healthy until they moved out of your house. Unlike me, however, these women actually had children. Sometimes, several of them.

I am not an economist. I have no stats to offer that show the correlation between extremely pronatalist countries and rampant poverty among women. I am not a social scientist. Or an anthropologist. I cannot cite hundreds of case studies of women who were ambivalent (at best) about motherhood yet took it on anyway because that’s just what every day, every moment of their lives had been constructed to tell them women do: become mothers.

All I have is the story of Masha.

To understand why I even know the intimate details of Masha’s abandonment of her child, you have to understand the make up of our compound. There were two houses enclosed behind the iron gate of Beatrice’s property. She rented the main house, which was too big and had too many rooms, to me and my housemate. The bottom portion of the main house had been turned into a small, two-bedroom apartment, which was where Masha lived with her toddler and a house girl who couldn’t have been more than seventeen years old. The other house, which was slightly smaller and sat at the bottom of the steep incline I had to walk up everyday to get home, was rented by a young-ish couple with a school-aged child. The husband was the only person on the compound, besides Masha, who was Rwandan and spoke both Kinyarwanda and French while the rest of us got by with only English.

One day, Masha disappeared. It took about a week for us to notice. The baby was screeching at an ear piercing volume, which wasn’t unusual. I had observed this child for months from my perch on the balcony as she did the toddler stumble out of the house, wobbling on her chubby legs. Always screaming. Always brought back into the house and comforted by the house girl. Occasionally, by Masha. Both my housemate and I noticed how the screeches seemed to be nonstop now and we didn’t hear Masha’s voice responding to them in her curt French. When coming back and forth onto the compound, we were sure that we saw the house girl as regularly as we always had. But, no Masha. As the second week of fairly consistent screeching was approaching its end, my housemate and I decided to go to the couple at the bottom of the incline to see if they knew what was going on.

“She is away,” the husband told us. “She left the baby with the girl and I think the girl said she went to Uganda, but she was only supposed to be gone for a few days.” There was a rumour that one of her gentlemen callers had treated her to a luxury East African holiday spanning several countries. A beautiful girl with a figure that would make even the most confident woman a little spiteful, this seemed a believable enough explanation for Masha’s absence.

“Well, does her house girl know when she’s supposed to be back? Has Masha left enough money to feed them and pay the cash power? Will they have electricity much longer?” The husband at the bottom of the incline had no answers, but we all came to the logical conclusion that the answers to all my questions were probably no. I mean, this woman had vanished into thin air as if she were the mother of an eighteen year old who had just gotten her college acceptance letter in the mail. Surely, she just took whatever francs she had in her wallet and thew them on the table before hopping in the car headed to Lake Victoria.

My housemate was shocked. I was not.

There’s a term from 1990s Black American slang. Game recognizes game. From the moment Masha sauntered up to the top of the house to introduce herself, I spotted a woman whose heart was not warmed by children. A woman who tolerated them. A woman who preferred them in small doses. There was something in the way she bounced that baby on her hip as if she were just carrying a sack of potatoes up the incline that registered with me. It reminded me of when I came across small children who I thought were cute. I’d do a quick game of peek-a-boo and smile at their giggles. And then I’d go back to reading my book as they tried to get more funny faces out of me. My interest in the interaction rarely extended beyond this initial moment.

The first time Masha sat in our living room for an afternoon cup of tea, the baby was with her. The cute little dumpling was clean, clothed and well fed. She seemed happy and playful. She also seemed as if she were visiting these new foreigners with her auntie who had been asked to babysit at the last minute. Masha was not neglectful of the child as she crawled around our house. But she was not particularly nurturing or doting of her either.

My housemate would comment on how cute the baby was often. Each time, I would agree that the baby was oh so precious and adorable. I would watch Masha tote her around as if she were a brand new handbag and think to myself: It’s such a shame no one told this young woman that she didn’t have to have a baby. She could have done something else that interested her.

I didn’t think why did she have a baby in the first place if she wasn’t that into kids?

Six months before Masha abandoned her baby, I was sitting in the living room of the main house for the second time. My housemate and I had just brought Beatrice our security deposit and she had her house girl bring out tea and cookies to celebrate. As we chatted, Beatrice threw the two of us that expert Rwandan up-down — a level of judgmental side eye that can’t be truly understood unless experienced. Here we were, two women a long way out of our 20s who had no husbands and no children, yet were renting her gigantic home in the most expensive part of Kigali. Through her English-speaking son, she asked, “You have no husbands. No children. What happened to your life?” My housemate, a divorced woman who was childless by circumstance, chuckled uncomfortably and explained that she had put up with more than enough from her ex-husband before she filed for divorce and that their marriage, unfortunately, had not resulted in children. She got a little choked up on the “we never had kids” part. When it was my turn, I said marriage had never really interested me, though I could be talked into the right one and there was nothing that interested me less than loud ass children roaming around my house and touching stuff that didn’t belong to them.

Silence fell upon our pleasant afternoon tea. Beatrice’s up-down left my housemate and focused only on me. A brief conversation happened between her and her son, which seemed to be causing the son some distress. When he returned to speaking English, our conversation was suddenly about being prepared for the dry season and making sure the water tank was full.

Three months before Masha left her two-year-old with the seventeen year old house girl who was likely illiterate with no other employment opportunities, I was having a drink with an acquaintance who would soon become the only good Rwandan friend I would make in my two years in Kigali. She was mentioning how her recently married cousin had just announced her pregnancy to the family. “Well, dang,” I joked with my acquaintance. “She and the hubs didn’t waste no time on the procreation part, huh?” My acquaintance nonchalantly responded, “Oh, that’s just Rwanda. If you don’t get pregnant after the first year of marriage, people start talking. Asking questions. Wondering what’s wrong with you.”

I already knew why Masha had become a mother though she probably never really wanted to parent a child.

When I chatted with Nina Steele, she talked about being an African woman who bought into pronatalist conditioning, never questioning or challenging it. Having tried for several years to conceive, she eventually decided to accept that infertility issues would stand in the way of giving her husband a child. It was accepting this infertility instead of fighting against it that made her realize she didn’t even feel that strongly about motherhood. As a matter of fact, she was grateful that she would never experience it. She could enjoy the simple, yet fulfilling life she and her husband shared without the disruption in free time, expendable income and sleep that children brought. “I grew up in a very poor village in Ivory Coast and kept seeing these women have babies even though they couldn’t feed them. My own mother struggled with taking care of me and my siblings.” As an educated woman with an economically stable husband, Nina’s circumstances were obviously much more favorable than the women she watched struggle to raise children in her small village. However, the infertility in her marriage forced her to really reconcile with this expectation that she should want to have children. This was just good African values — marriage and motherhood. Though she had the financial means to raise children, was there any real desire to do so?

By the time Masha sauntered back onto the compound, the husband at the bottom of the incline had tracked down her relatives who had driven to Kigali and picked up the baby and house girl. I was not at home when she arrived, but I was told she came back with a really long story that painted her absence in a much more serious light than an extended vacay with Bae. Her child and house girl were back on the compound shortly after her return.

I forgot why Masha eventually moved out of the apartment at the bottom of the main house. She could have just found a better place in a more affordable neighbourhood. She could have moved back to Giseyni, which is where I was told her family had come from when they were told about their abandoned kin.

I have thought about her several times in the years that have passed since I left Kigali. It is very likely that she now has two children. It is more than possible that the birth of the second sentient life was celebrated with great gusto by every person in her life. I am sure the second child is clothed, clean and well fed. And much like the first, it is being parented by a woman who is indifferent at best to the demands of motherhood.

But, Aren’t Women Natural Caregivers?

My good friend, Lorraine, had what I like to call a Come-to-Jesus moment. She came to the realization that the life she thought she wanted as recently as a decade ago would have made her miserable. Furthermore, she awakened to this truth: she wasn’t even hardwired for the life she’d thought she wanted.

“I think the universe did me a favor by keeping my soulmate away from me during my childbearing years. If I had to do this shit every day for YEARS, well, I would make my husband and our offspring miserable.”

Like many women, Lorraine is single and childless mostly by circumstance. At 48, she has found herself unmarried and without a child mostly because she never made much effort to acquire either. She would have preferred a husband (she thought) and if their marriage resulted in children, she would have enjoyed caring for said children (she thought.) On a recent trip home for the Christmas holiday, she became the primary caregiver for the old folks in her family. Elders who were not so frail that they needed full time help, but who took full advantage of having a younger, more able bodied daughter and niece to run errands, cook meals and negotiate the tedious details of doctors’ appointments, prescription refills and grocery shopping. Lorraine cared for the adults who had once cared for her, but she was clear that she did not enjoy it. She also found she did not naturally possess the skills (or patience) one would need to be a good caregiver.

Lorraine joked that she was “shook hard” by this epiphany. She didn’t find honor in managing the lives of family members she loved dearly? She didn’t take pride in serving as the caregiver? Found it the complete opposite of a joyful necessity? She thought about how she had imagined her adult life as a teenager and young woman. While she was not aching to be a wife and mother, she assumed that when she became both, she’d fall happily into the roles. That’s what women do, right? Sure, women have their moments of fatigue when taking care of their families, but overall, they relished in the role. Eventually came to see it as some sort of super power. I am the backbone of this family. I keep us together. Right?

On a recent episode of my podcast, I talked with Doreen Yomoah about this assumption. That women, by virtue of their gender, have some innate skill, which makes them the default option when a child needed to be nurtured or an older relative tended to. Doreen works for a research center that explores this persistent myth that women, in general, are genetically predisposed for the role of primary caregiver. Through her work, she sees how many of us are so bought into the messaging that it should be women who take care of children, husbands, and parents that we never question why women are so “good at” taking care of others. Is it because we possess this special gene that men lack or is it because from the time we are old enough to be aware of it, people are making us take care of others whether we want to or not?

Young girls get their training for caregiving at Thanksgiving when they find themselves alone in a room full of toddlers they did not give birth to. Hours before, these toddlers would have arrived with adults who were legally and morally responsible for them. However, the 12-year-old girl cousins happen to look up from the television to find babies crawling around them. Their aunts and uncles have gone off to some other part of the house to hang with each other and just assumed their offspring would be kept alive by these older children who had been blessed with the caregiving gene. Meanwhile, the 12- year-olds who were not blessed with this magical gene are outside playing football.

It is very telling that even in this, the year of our Lord: 2019, women who come to Lorraine’s conclusion are surprised when discovering this about themselves. I don’t like giving care and I don’t believe I am predisposed to it. As I said to Lorraine, “I’ve known I was not a caregiver since I was 12.” While I may seem more enlightened for having my Come-to-Jesus moment while still a girl, I instinctively knew that I could not vocalize my knowing feeling that being a primary caregiver would not suit me. That I would be opting out of the role as soon as I was allowed to.

Because it was clear to me as a girlchild with little control over my daily life, I would not be allowed to say no to what so many assumed was my duty. Children would be left in my care without my permission and a cursory, “I am just going to sit in the front room talking with your mama for a while. All you have to do is give him his bottle when he cries.” Helping my grandmother manage her house would become my Sunday responsibility before it would my older and more capable brother’s. I would be expected to be a free babysitter to my sister’s child well before anyone ever thought to ask my brothers if they could go over to her apartment and take the baby off her hands for a few hours.

Yes, it goes without saying that some women are blessed with this magical gene of caregiving. These women do find honor and joy in nurturing children and managing the lives of vulnerable family members. However, as Doreen said on Unchained. Unbothered., “Women are just socialized from the time we are born to be primary caregivers. We are not naturally better at it than men.”

I am not suggesting that women abandon their old folk and refuse to care for their children. What needs to happen is we start calling a thing a thing. Women still take on the lion’s share of caregiving because we exonerate men from the duty even when many of them are just as capable as we are. There is no caregiving gene. There is just training. Girls are drafted into the training even before they’ve reached puberty. Boys get to skip it, if they choose. Not surprisingly, they opt for football.

Why We Need More Nova Bordelons on Television

Some believe her to be broken. She is no more broken than any of us who chose to enter this world via human beings, allowing those flawed creatures to parent us. Many believe she is afraid of love. These people are partially correct. She is afraid of a love that requires her erasure.

Of all the characters in Queen Sugar, Nova Bordelon interests me the most. While Ralph Angel tires me and Charley reminds me of half of the black women I have ever seen on any show that has black women in it, Nova has always struck me as something new. A portrayal of black womanhood we have only seen a flash of here and there in between the standard storytelling of tragic black women or ambitious black women. All longing for that one thing: love.

Nova Bordelon is not the first single woman to be portrayed as struggling with partnership. She is the first black woman I have seen on screen who struggles with finding love because she does not value the opportunity to find a mate over any other aspect of her life. She is one of the first black women I have seen on screen to repeatedly choose herself over the chance to get chose by a decent enough mate.

Her boyfriend left his wife for her. But, Nova did not stay.

She had a replay of her college years and entered into a relationship with a woman. Nova did not stay.

She is currently involved with a single man who is an academic and activist; he is as committed to racial justice as she is. While Nova has opened herself up to the quietly sexy Dubois in ways she has not to others, she is still a flight risk.

But, her potential to run is not simply because she is afraid of being vulnerable. It is not merely because for her entire life she believed her father betrayed her mother and did not value her as much as he did his son. “Free spirit” is the only term our limited language will allow us for a woman like Nova.  But, even that does not fully capture why she is in her late 30s and has nonchalantly walked away from potential love on several occasions.

She wants a kind of love that women like her have had no prototype on which to base their vision of partnership. In this version of love, she gets to continue to choose herself and not be penalized for it. She gets to put her work before her relationship when it is necessary and have her partner admire that quality in her, acknowledging that a woman passionate about her life’s mission will choose it over him at times.

It is no coincidence that Nova admitted her love for Dubois after he confided he, too, had made it to mid-life without children on purpose. And he planned to continue his life childfree by choice. When you are a black woman who does not worship at the altar of motherhood, you get used to good black men taking offense to their goodness not being enough to magically transform you into a baby-hungry maker of nightly meat loaf. Dubois asserting that his legacy would lie in the work he left behind, the altruism he extended to his community is what made Nova believe, with this man, she could be the woman she has always known herself to be. The woman that she feared would have to be erased if she entered into something permanent with any of the others.

She told Dubois she was tired of running. And that was true. But, the thing is: Before him, she had to run. When you are self-possessed. When being alone does not frighten or shame you. When wife is a title that mostly disinterests you and motherhood a role you do not need to try on to know it won’t fit.

When you are enough for you.

Saying yes to a version of partnership that might suffocate you is an unnecessary burden.

I long to see more of Nova’s struggle because it centers the black single woman that I know. She is neither frivolous and fabulous nor bitter and angry. She ages and reconsiders some assumptions she made once she has new evidence to redraw conclusions. But, these new inferences don’t necessarily make the complexities of her desires any more simplistic than they ever were.

Nova wants what she wants when she wants it. She wants it how she wants it. Because she has met her intellectual, spiritual and philosophical equal in Dubious, she is more likely to bend and consider this way of living and loving will not reap her what she needs emotionally. But, at her core: preservation of self will underscore every choice she makes. I want to send Ava and Oprah a thank you card for showing people what a Nova looks like and how looking like Nova can cause turmoil for the Novas themselves as well as the people who love them.

Finally, a woman who desires love, but not more than she desires herself.

The Rogue Tourist (Who Smelled Barbecue)

If you talk to my childhood teachers and friends, they would confirm I was a good girl who did what she was told at least 97% of the time. While I had a smart mouth that often wrote checks my ass could not cash, I reserved respectful obedience for authority figures and followed the directions of people who were in charge of leading me in different areas of my adolescent life.

My friends, family and teachers would also confirm that I was a fat kid who was easily driven to distraction by food.

Which brings me to the half-day tour of Phuket I recently took. I had every intention of hopping out of the van at whatever site the tour company had arranged for us 8 random foreigners who wanted to get in some semi-culture between sun bathing on the beach and consuming mojitos. At the baby elephant site, I hopped out of the van and fed the elephant. And then hopped back in the van right as the tour guide was summoning us to gather again. When we went to a mountain peak to take in one of many breathe taking views of the island, same thing. Hopped off van, listened closely to the guide give us the history, took a few pictures and then, back to the van.

I was a good little tourist for the majority of this trip.

And then, I got hungry.

Thing was: I didn’t realize I was hungry until I smelled the smoke of the black diaspora’s favorite cuisine: barbecue. We had just left the honey plantation and were now at yet another temple that seems to be a requisite site when touring any Asian city. The guide gave us a quick history and told us we could explore on our own, leaving us with a time and location to meet up again.

Listen, Children…When you see one of these scared temples, you truly have seen them all. This temple looked just like the one I happened upon in my neighborhood in Shanghai when I was trying to find the Walmart so I could buy some paper towels. It also resembled the one I saw in Bali, except more grand and blingy. Ornate walls. Lots of incense. Altars. Buddha statues. Yup, it was a temple alright.

It was my plan to find the toilet and the barbecue while my fellow travellers found enlightenment praying and what not within the temple.

And when I found the barbecue, several things happened that were not truly my fault.

Thing 1: The barbecue was absolutely delicious. The old man who had all this meat on sticks waiting to be thrown on this open flame had put some magical, crack-like sauce on these skewers and his charcoal had to be made from the dust of fairy wings because when I bit into my first chicken skewer, I felt like the Hebrews being sent manna from Heaven after Year #17 wandering around the dessert pissed because they still didn’t know when they’d get to the Promised Land. Because the chicken skewer was so succulent,

Thing #2: I had to order a pork skewer from the old man whose advanced age caused him to take an inordinate amount of time to barbecue meats. I only ordered 1 more skewer so I don’t know why it took him so long to grill it, but this is how things go. It would have been rude of me to rush him as he was at least two and a half decades older than me. To make use of the 5 or so minutes I had left before I had to meet the group, I went over to another stall where some sort of fruit drink was being offered. This, too, took a long time so when I came back to get my pork skewer, I realized I was hungrier than I originally thought and should probably get a beef one, too.

Thing #3: I had to feed a hungry child. This child did not say he was hungry. But, when I came back to the elderly barbecue man, I recognized one of the children from the family who had been on the tour with us throughout the day. We were coming up on hour 3 of this tour and the young lad had not even had a snack as far as I could tell. So, I asked him if he wanted a pork skewer. He did make note of the time and asked if we were supposed to head back over to the meeting point, but the sizzle from the grill, the aroma of the crack-laced sauce entranced him, too.

Thing #4: The elderly barbecue man did not have change for the big bill I gave him and thus ensued another lengthy event, wherein he roamed around to his other vendor colleagues trying to scrounge together my change.

Thing #5: I realized we had like two more stops before this tour ended. I would probably be hungry again so it would be smart for me to order 2 or 3 more skewers. As previously stated, the grilling process was inexplicably long.

When me and the young lad, who was visibly happier than he was pre-skewer, approached the rest of the group, I felt a bit of remorse. Well, actually, I didn’t really feel remorse. I felt bad for the other tourists in the group. They looked hot. And hungry.

“Wait…there was food?” One of them asked.

“I hope we still have time to visit the Big Buddha,” our guide passive-aggressively mumbled under his breathe.

Because my mama raised me right, I apologized for being a little late and setting us back on the itinerary.  The young lad was the one to rave about the barbecue meat and how he was glad he had the chance to have one.

I just simply crawled into the van that had pulled up once we got back and began eating my reserve skewer.

For some reason, it was really quiet on the ride to the Big Buddha.

A Salute to the Sisterfriends Who Sustain Us

I looked down at my phone to see a whatsapp message from a woman I had not seen in person for more than six months.

Do you remember that gorgeous man we saw at the Ghana Embassy in Kigali?

Although we had been keeping in touch since we had both left Rwanda – she moving back to London as I headed for Shanghai – we hadn’t had a lengthy text conversation since The New Edition Story aired and we debated whether Fake Ralph was cuter than Real Ralph at Fake Ralph’s age.

Uhm…yeah…I remember that statue of a man who looked like he had been chiseled from stone before being casually placed among all those regular-looking dudes?

I excitedly wondered what inspired this as her first message to me weeks after our in-depth analysis of Fake New Edition’s portrayal of the trials and tribulations of Real New Edition.

Wait…did that painfully gorgeous man end up in London? Are you about to tell me you just happened to cross paths and are now whatsapping me from his bed?

I got the slightly disappointing response of: No…I just thought about what a superb specimen of man he was. And had to share it with someone who would understand.

And then I didn’t hear from this friend again for another month.

In The Crunked Feminists’ Collection, Brittney C. Cooper dedicates a portion of one of her essays to what is often overlooked when the trite conversation about black women’s singleness comes up – normally brought up by a person of any race or gender who has more issues with the singleness of black women than these single black women have themselves. She writes about the blessing of having time. Time for herself, of course. But, most of all, time for the female friendships she has cultivated over decades worth of shared triumphs and failures. Cooper vocalizes something I have always felt when this social media need to write and discuss “think” pieces about everything finds itself regurgitating the same statistic about the unmarried every few years or so.

I spend no time bemoaning my lack of a husband. I am only mildly bothered when I do not have a Bae in my life. (And truth be told, the thing that mostly bothers me when there is no steady Bae is the long stretches of celibacy I am forced to endure since repeated indulgences in casual sex have never truly appealed to me.) While I am aware that being partnered presents multiple advantages as a person grows older, I do not tremble at the thought of common dangers impacting me greater because I will encounter them without a husband.

However, the thought of waking up one day when I am 70 years old and not having at least one of my good girlfriends still in my life terrifies the shit out of me.

I had just finished reading Cooper’s insight into female friendships when my homegirl sent me the random message about that Ghanaian Adonis for no other reason than she thought of me. I giggled and for weeks after, smiled when I remembered her random tribute to a beautiful man she knew I would appreciate.

Since moving to Shanghai, I have gotten several texts from a male friend who could have been Bae (or at the very least, a good enough placeholder for Bae) the entire two years I was in Kigali. I do not remember what those messages contained and while I was glad to hear from him, I was mostly indifferent when he hit me up to “see how Shanghai is treating you so far.” Another man with whom I shared dinner a few times has also sent me one or two texts since I left Kigali. I do not remember what they were about or if I responded to them. Though this dinner companion was as random as my homegirl, my response to him was not as immediate. His messages were sporadic like several of my girlfriends’ communication have been since I left. I have always responded to my girlfriends’ messages as soon as I have seen them. The guy I went out to dinner with a few times…well, I cannot say (with certainty) he always received a prompt response. Or a response at all. For those two months when I was in the United States after leaving Rwanda, I kept my whatsapp connected to my Kigali number so my girlfriends could communicate with me as easily as they had for the past two years. Wanting to keep lines open for potential suitors or past suitors never occurred to me. I still have the Kigali whatsapp number for that same reason.

I have written before about the persistence of loneliness and how it exhibits itself abroad (See, The Thing About Living Abroad Is…). Although I am still fairly new to this Ex Pat life, I can say with absolute assurance it is my formation of female friendships that has made this life livable the last three years and not the time I have devoted to dating men. My dedication to doing the work of connecting with other black women has helped assuage my loneliness more so than doing the work of sifting through online dating profiles to find a man who I am attracted to and who is my intellectual and financial equal. To be clear: I devote the appropriate amount of time to both my life as a friend to other women and my life as a lover to men. But when I think about how I prioritize the two, I am reminded of Cooper’s argument. We continue to flatten the emotional fullness of women’s humanity by making the story of the modern-day single lady all about her quest to cure herself of the illness of singlehood. We write story after story of women’s honest depiction of what it’s like to date and never marry, how dating has changed for the worse since the explosion of Tinder, how women manage to find ways to pass the time as they wait for their husbands to find them.

Why aren’t we giving as much time to painting the picture of single women that many of us can identify with most  – regardless of where we stand on marriage and the desire to end our single status? The time we have to connect with and cherish each other. To support and encourage each other. Hell, just the time we have to SEE each other. When I was in Kigali, one of the women in my circle of girlfriends was married with three kids. We tried to include her as much as we could in our impromptu trips to Giseyni and last minute dinners in Kimihurura. But, like many wives and mothers, she just couldn’t make it out to many of our get togethers. Her husband and children could only fill so much of her emotional needs. Before she took on domestic life, she had fully reveled in her ability to SEE her girlfriends whenever she needed them or they needed her. I sensed in her repeated requests to factor her circumstances into our planning that she had underestimated the value of the time her unmarried self had devoted to bonding with her female friends.

Three years ago, I left my beloved New York City and a country I was not sure I liked. I ended a serious relationship with a man I loved because he was not called to Ex Pat life as I was. I also left behind three women who I had spent most of my adult life with. The first year of my new life, the ex-boyfriend and I were still in communication. Every few months, I would find him in my DM on Facebook talking about nothing in particular, which led to us both chatting about how our lives were going. Somewhere around the 12th month, the DMs stopped coming. I felt a momentary pang of sadness. He had moved on and the likelihood of our ever being in each other’s online or offline lives again was slim. The pang dissipated, though, and when I do have thoughts of him now, they are fleeting moments of hoping that he has met someone who will take care of him. That he is working toward his goals. I don’t miss his DMs. I assumed they would end.

There is a much longer thread in my DM on Facebook that I started with three girlfriends shortly after leaving my beloved New York. In it, we talk about nothing in particular and everything that matters. For three years, the thread has been active, getting bumped after weeks of silence with a period rant or a hearty throwing of shade toward a celebrity, co worker, or commuter.

If that thread ended. If I bumped it with an observation that no matter how much money I spend on bras, they never seem to fully satisfy my boobs’ needs and these women never responded. Not just didn’t say anything in regards to this particular message, but really…just removed themselves from the thread, never to add to it again…

You would find me in the fetal position on my living room floor. I would be in tears questioning my life choices.

Just When I Think These People Have Done the Damn Most…They Add a Dash of Extra.

I am rounding out my 12th year of teaching. That’s approximately 24 parent teacher conferences and roughly 12 sleep away trips with other people’s children. I have seen some things. I have found myself involuntarily caught in the swirling winds created by parents helicoptering over their offspring. Special snowflakes whose brilliance or fragility these parents are convinced have gone undetected by all the other adults who are responsible for their children when they are not around.

Years ago, when an 8th grader’s auntie showed up to the hotel where we were staying in Washington, D.C. with a home cooked vegan meal to give to her niece because the niece’s mother had insisted we would not truly feed her child the most appetizing non-meat food for the three days she was away from New York City, my fellow chaperones and I laughed throughout the night. Who does that? The kid is 13 years old.  She’ll be fine eating regular vegetarian food for 72 hours…geez.

I wish 5th Year Teacher Keturah could have caught a glimpse of 12th Year Teacher Keturah.  If only New York City Teacher Keturah could see some of this shit that Shanghai Teacher Keturah witnesses on the regular.

Because as per usual, our Chinese brethren have even eclipsed us mediocre Americans in the precision of helicopter parenting.

My first field trip here in China was to a province a two-hour plane ride away from Shanghai. There were 30 students who would be visiting a Kung Fu school and exploring the town where the art form began. Although myself and two teachers from the school were chaperoning, an educational tour company had provided their own teachers and guides to lead the trip.

I noticed one of these “teachers” wasn’t doing anything. To be precise: all she was doing was taking copious amounts of photos. I watched the two younger guides as they explained the history of the places where we were and led the students through ice breaker games when there were lulls in the schedule. But, this lady just kept photographing everything. As the activities got more involved and the kids’ interest increased, she would record videos as well. I also noticed she seemed to be uploading the photos and videos instantly to wechat.

“Who is that lady,” I asked my co-worker who had done most of the coordinating of the trip with the tour company.

“Oh, she’s the photographer,” he answered nonchalantly. “The parents requested someone take as many pictures as possible and upload them in real time in this wechat group they started. So, the tour company had her come along.”

Wait…what? So, parents asked to have their kids’ middle school trip live streamed? And someone green lighted that request?

Seeing the look on my face, my co-worker explained that “Last year, they asked the teachers to do it and we tried to be nice, but by the second day they were asking us to send them personal shots of their kids in front of the sites and asking us why we hadn’t put their kid with his friend for a group activity. Obviously, we stopped doing it at all after that.”

So, pulling this woman, whose real job was in accounts, from her desk and throwing her into this 5-day long trip which involved her hiking for three hours up a mountain while orchestrating photo opps with smiling kids was the compromise?

I am about to ask my co-worker a question he has watched me grapple with for the entire 9 months we have sat in the same office, marking papers and trading stories about our adolescent students acting just like adolescents.

“Don’t stress yourself,” he cuts off my question before I can ask it. “The answer is the same as always: China.”

Hours after this co-worker had reminded me I needed to just accept China for what it was, I was still a bit surprised that this woman was live streaming our school trip.

As my parents and every man I have ever dated will confirm, I am rather hard headed. I don’t stop doing stuff just because people present me with sound reasoning to stop doing it. While sitting at dinner, I mention to the table of grownups how unique this is for me to see. “Wow, providing a photographer for the parents. What a very interesting idea. I’ve never known parents to ask for that.”

One of the younger guides who had been taking charge of the activities said she was relieved that her boss had turned a white-collar office worker into an outdoor adventure photographer. A British blonde who looked to be in her early 30s, this woman had come to China to work in outdoor education at the same time I had come to work in traditional classroom education. She said her first trip with this tour company was on some isolated island that involved the group catching a plane, a bus and a ferry to get to the site where they would spend a week hiking, camping and doing general low-level Survivor-type living.

“This place really was secluded,” she explained. “We had chosen it because it completely disconnected the teenagers from their normal lives and routines.” While the group was taking a break from one of its activities, the woman’s cell phone rang. It was the parent of one of the students; she was quite irate.

“One of the teachers has walked off and left the children. I think he may be drinking alcohol over on the beach while the children wait for him.”

The blonde was speechless. “Excuse me? How did you get my number? And more importantly, how do you know we are on a beach and where this teacher is?”

The woman’s question was answered by an army of parents with binoculars around their necks marching from around a collection of trees.  These people had found a hostel in close enough proximity to the campsite and had been getting up early in the morning to spy on their children to make sure that…it is still unclear to me and the British blonde what exactly they were monitoring every day. Even after sitting the parents down and talking to them about boundaries, she still is not sure what they wanted to protect their children from. What danger lurked in their minds that caused them to catch a plane, a bus and a ferry and crawl up into trees just to watch their children for hours as they tried to pitch a tent and light a fire without a match?

Several paragraphs ago, I openly admitted to being hard headed. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that my reaction to this woman’s story was to blurt out: “The devil is a damn lie and so are you.”

“Oh, how I wish I had the creative mind to make up that kind of story,” she laughed. “It all happened just like I said. No exaggeration at all.”

My co-worker is giving me the I-keep-telling-you-these-people-are-special look when he reminds me of the last time he gave me the look. “Keturah, do we need to review why the SAT is no longer offered anywhere in China? Remember when you were confused about why all the Year 11s had to miss classes and go to Hong Kong just to take the SAT?”

I do remember him casually detailing how when the SAT people did offer the college entrance exam in the People’s Republic of China, they developed elaborate, complicated ways to prevent cheating. From what he told me, even though the system involved something close to strip searching high school students and only allowing them to sit for the exam if they were butt naked, their parents STILL found ways to send them the answers to the test via carrier pigeons and sky writing cliff notes in the air.

When I wrote China: Where People Do The Most On The Regular, some of y’all shared your own stories of spending time in China and bearing witness to the extra ratchetness among its billion citizens. Some of y’all thought I had outdone myself. “Girl, you wrote the hell out of this post” you said. You inaccurately attributed the post to my skills as a writer instead of the craft my Chinese brethren diligently put in to their heightened extraness.

I have accepted that the entire time I am here, I will walk around racking my brain, contorting my mind into complicated answer-seeking positions, trying my hardest to understand before just shrugging my shoulders and deciding: Cuz…China. Do. The. Damn. Most. And then some.

Dear China: So Sorry, but Ms. Kendrick Does Not Accept Bribes

“I told this man in plain English not to send me this jacket.” The jacket is still wrapped in its plastic casing and sitting in the opened shipping box. The rip in the packaging tape shows it was sent to Ms. Ketu Kendrick. I am way pass irritated and not yet solidly livid when I present this “gift” to my boss at the private school where I teach super rich Chinese children whose parents apparently don’t read or understand English enough to fully comprehend the clause in the student handbook that says, “teachers cannot accept gifts” or the words coming out of a teacher’s mouth that say, “No, thank you; please don’t send me a gift.”

“And he still sent it to you?” The principal who has worked in and around China for 15 years actually seems as surprised as I am. “Well, this is a first,” he chuckles. He ponders his reaction for a moment and then realizes he has lied. “Naw, it isn’t. This is China.” He thanks me for informing him of this gift giver’s aggressive campaign to get me to write favorable recommendation letters for his daughter and advises me to return the jacket with as much humility as I can. “Just remember, they think something is wrong with us for not accepting gifts so frame it like you really want to take it, but because of the school policy…”

I consider myself a woman of great integrity and I am also of the firm belief that students, generally, have already shown themselves worthy of a satisfactory recommendation letter when they ask me to write one for them. Although teenagers are not as equipped with the skills for honest introspection as adults (in theory), they can sense when a teacher is pleased with their performance and they know what their report cards show. Only students who do well in my class and have been rewarded with verbal accolades – both in private and in public – from me have asked me to write them recommendation letters. There is absolutely no need for parents to “sweeten the deal” for me. If their child were truly a waste of a seat in my class, I would politely decline their recommendation request and suggest they ask a teacher in whose class they have shown greater promise.  What could possibly be the point of accepting a bribe from a parent whose B+ student works harder than me in my class?

I need someone to tell China I believe in its children. Without qualifiers or disclaimers. They are young people so why wouldn’t I believe in them? I would like for someone to tell my students’ parents I am not any greater or lesser impressed with their children than the children I taught in Rwanda or the ones I taught in the United States. The Chinese versions of student work ethic and academic achievement look no different than the work ethic and achievement of every teenager in every school in every corner of this world. Can someone please ask these parents to stop sending Ms. Kendrick “gifts” with notes that remind her “only two more recommendation letters to send!”

The first time it happened, I naively took it for what it was supposed to be: an appreciation of the extra time it would take me to write a thoughtful letter highlighting the student’s strengths and weaknesses. A student, who in all honesty, was quite mediocre, but still showed promise shyly hovered near my desk after I had dismissed her class. I saw she had a form in her hand that she periodically glanced at before looking toward me and then quickly averting her eyes when they met mine. “Do you need something, Sweetie,” I helped her initiate the conversation. When she sheepishly explained she was applying to a high school in the United States and she was sorry for bothering me, but the school needed a recommendation letter from her English teacher, I told her I would be happy to write her one. I took the form out of her shaky hand and said, “I will try to get it done within the next week or so, okay?”

When I turned to pack up my bag and leave the room, the student pulled out a Chanel box from somewhere and then grinned at me, “Uhm…my mom helped me pick this out for you.” For about two seconds, I hesitated because the timing seemed…convenient to say the least. But, why would this sweet child who I had previously acknowledged in class for improving in her analytical skills have any ulterior motives? “Aww, thank you, Sweetie,” I patted her on the shoulder as I took the box.

And then she gave me this look. I do not have adequate words to describe what I saw in her eyes. Just my gut told me, Ms. Kendrick, this is not what you think it is. When I brought the most fly, perfectly designed sunglasses to my supervisor, my gut was confirmed. “Yeah, this is supposed to influence what you put in the letter,” the Head of the English Department said nonchalantly as she agreed to gently break it to the student on my behalf that this gift had to be returned to her mother. “The girl and her mother have good taste, though; these glasses are so you.” She complained all she had been offered in the past was thoughtless cash. And the parent hadn’t even bothered to make her feel like a lady when he offered it. “Literally, he slid an envelope across the table as he suggested his son be moved up to the honors class even though he was barely cracking a C in the regular class.” She proceeded to regale me with outrageous stories that explained why the school finally had to write a clear policy in the handbook so it would curb the thinly veiled attempts of privileged parents to give their child an extra edge in the competitive world of studying abroad.

“As you can see, even with the policy there are still parents who continue to do what they think works.” The Head of the English Department sighed. “I am not so sure everyone on our staff actually follows the policy themselves.  So, there’s that.”

I get it. There are 23 million people in Shanghai alone. Has the population of China itself exceeded a billion yet? A student being good enough is not enough even within China. If you factor into the equation students who seek to leave the isolated bubble of China and enter a culture and curriculum that, in many ways, is the polar opposite of their homeland’s, well…yeah…what conscientious parent wouldn’t see the need to “sweeten the deal” for his kid who is good enough but may not be as good as the 1000+ other applicants he has heard is applying to the same schools in America as his daughter?

But, I still need one of y’all to tell these people with words and in a tone more convincing than mine that I don’t want their damn “gifts.” I am growing annoyed at being forced to discreetly whisper to a student that I need to see her in the hall and then play like I am flattered and torn as I say, “Your father is very kind and I know he doesn’t mean anything by this, but the school has a policy, so…”

%d bloggers like this: