I want to listen to any single conversation I can understand. Because this is too much—an entire country that doesn't speak English. City of fifteen million with no readable road signs. City of marchers. That's when Lao Wu turns up the volume and laughs, and I think I'm going to really like him. I laugh too and nod my head, because of course. Of course it's Chinese on the radio. We are, after all, in China. It's Monday in Beijing and we've got work to do. Children to pick up from school. The first day is bound to be rocky.

We pull up to the school gate, and the street looks like a construction zone: garbage lies along the sides of the road—plastic food tubs and paper wrappings. Cement high-rises stretch as far as I can see. Some are empty shells. Others get air-conditioning units soldered by men dangling on ropes. The total sum of so many skyscrapers has a zeroing-out effect. There's such a great deal of heavy machinery and laying of rebar that my mind clouds over. What kind of city has no sidewalks?

A green bulldozer barrels through the cars and drops a load of brown dirt to the left of our van. The driver wears a black polyester sports jacket and a yellow hard hat. Ten men attack the dirt with shovels. They're the migrant workers you might have heard about. The ones who've left their farms in the countryside—millions of them-to ready Beijing for the Olympics. They're the ones transforming China. They work for about two dollars a day. The migrant workers don't march. Most of them smoke while they shovel. Some of them are barefoot. Some of them are shirtless, and theirs is a story of epic migration—of sleeping along this road under green tarps that line the sidewalk, or in flimsy tin barracks behind the work site.

I lean against the metal school gate and look into the courtyard, and that's when the school's security guards leave their posts and begin marching in formation. Their faux-military uniforms-brass belt buckles, long blue jackets, and blue pants make them look like mid-level army. They march to the open space across from the fleet of parked school buses, where they salute their head guard, which makes me nervous. This is not a military academy, is it? How big a city Beijing must be to hold these contradictions.

The school is called Beijing City International School. We chose it from a Web site. Then Tony took a tour of it when he came over two months ago. The way I see it, this school is a crapshoot. How can you pick teachers from photos on the Internet? The one thing I already like about the place, though, is that few American kids attend. There are Korean children and Taiwanese and Hong Kong Chinese, plus Indians, Australians, Europeans, and Brazilians.

The school advertised a secular curriculum: Chinese language classes every day and a focus on being "internationally minded." There's supposed to be art and music and swimming. No marching. Small people emerge from the building—little children who don't look like they could be old enough to hold their heads up inside a school building all day. The children's blue backpacks are bigger than their torsos. Here comes Aidan's preschool class. And there's Aidan. He's a thin bean with sandy brown hair and huge almond-shaped eyes. He's usually a dreamer who never stops wondering about the state of the universe. Sometimes he lives entirely in his head. But right now he looks tired and cross, and as soon as he sees me, he starts crying. He thrusts his backpack in my hands. "Do you have a snack for me? Do you have water? I'm thirsty. I'm hot." His teacher, Carmel, is from Australia, and she reminds me of a high-school friend's fun great-aunt. She smiles and tells me warmly that Aidan's had a great first day. She calls him daaaaarling. But he won't look at her. She says he's just wound up about getting the answer right in Chinese.

Then Thorne rounds the corner. He's the blond in our family: dark eyes and tan skin and then this shock of bright hair. Thorne likes to be out in front whenever I give up the pole position. He prefers to know the game plan and the score and the names of the opposing players. Thorne and I have telepathy. We're that much alike. Aidan has come to us from another planet, but Thorne is blood of my blood and milk of my milk. Thorne is our camp director. He doesn't have time to dream because he's busy planning the afternoon's aquatic schedule. He doesn't have time to think. I have come to view this as a good thing. And maybe a cunning strategy.


Next Story