Tuesday, October 30, 2012

I'm in an abusive relationship with the internet

Way back in mid-90s when Al Gore invented the internet, it was mainly used to get people all "hot and bothered."  We didn't know what to make of it entirely, but the oldest profession in the world got with the newest platform in the world and created a lot of... well... you know it when you see it... Ahem.

Oh, how times have changed. Today, instead of getting most people all "hot and bothered," the interweb is largely responsible for getting people just "bothered."

I mean, I'm on it.  And probably too much.  I get real time updates from home and all over the world right here in Western Kenya.  I watch touching videos of my beloved niece and nephews, an ocean away, right here in my living room. I wouldn't go back to a world without it.  But, it's also a source of unique irritation in my life.  Here's why:

(1) I love that there's always an answer to "What's for dinner?" what with the series of tubes on the case.  But here's my beef (<-- did you see what I did there?):

I look up something I'm craving, like chicken tikka masala, and can easily find the recipe that has the highest rating with the most reviewers.  But then, I dig a little deeper into those glowing reviews, and get to comments like this:

"I absolutely loved this recipe   It was perfect.  I made just a few adjustments.  I removed the curry and turmeric, doubled the garlic, added a pinch of cilantro and then rolled up the whole thing in a tortilla and ate it like a taco.  Great recipe. My family, who normally hates Indian food, was asking for seconds. Five stars!!"

Look, if you have to change anything about a recipe it is. not. five. stars. Just give it 3 stars, and we can all move on.  If I have to read a dozen reviews to determine the quality of a recipe it kind of defeats the efficiency of searching up a recipe online.  Ok?  let's move on...

(2) Pinterest.  Why oh why do I get sucked into looking at sun-lit pictures of domestic tranquility and order?  It's calming, like a spa day for the eyes. And then there are clever little ideas that entice you into thinking a better life is just a more orderly sock drawer away.
No problem some yarn, a glue stick and precision folding can't cute-ify.
But then it's that much more jarring when I return to this action:
I was feeling OK about this because, you see, the clothes are folded. But Pinterest is wagging it's finger at the mess on the top. 

(3) I'd like to keep this light, but the political discourse on the World Wide Webbernet, that is when the partisans emerge from their echo chambers to spar with each other, gives me heart palpitations.  I should probably just ignore these little anonymous battles in the comment section of a news articles, but there's something about a good fight that keeps me reading despite my better judgment.  Then I find I'm all worked up (and not in the old sense of the internet kind of way...), feeling defensive on behalf of muckraker03 and wanting to give Redstayte a serious piece of my mind. But if I engage, it only sucks me into some 4th grade mud-slinging battleground that I can only escape by turning off the computer and swallowing some Zanax.  (I don't do either.)

(4) I think we all know I'm avoiding the profitless 1 billion strong elephant in the room.  The book of face.  There's a lot to be annoyed with here: the constantly changing interface, the dubious privacy settings, the greater ease it allows for stalking and cyberbullying, the irritating political rants from distant acquaintances, the false veneer of fabulous on everyone's public personas, the hours lost investigating the travel photos from someone I barely care about.

And despite all this I find myself proselytizing facebook to the few holdouts because I don't know how we'll maintain a friendship if they can't be sucked down this feel-bad vortex with me.

(5) Why can't I leave this list at four items?  Darnit all. I have to find a fifth.  Why? I don't know.  I think I have to blame...  you know people, I'm running out of euphemisms for the Internet, so can we just call it the Internet?  Whew.  That's a load off.    Not to get too meta here, but read enough blogs and you start to think in lists.  So, making me feel bad about failing think of 5 things is my fifth thing.

But, despite all this, Internet, I really do love you, OK?  It's not you, sugarcakes, it's me.  You know how I am -- it's my own insecurity and lack of self control at the root of all my gripes.  So, please take the above rant as me just letting of some steam, which we all need to do at times, right?  And let's not even think of punishing me by slowing down or crashing. Because I need you lovemuffin.  Tomorrow I'll bring you some bytes or bits or something, whatever you like....  I'll even read all the online recipe reviews to make sure they're perfect.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Are you a cynic or a sucker?

Think about it: If you had to choose, would you rather be a jerk or naive?  A cynic or sucker?

"Cynic!" answers in unison my demographic of over-educated, urban-dwelling, political progressives. After all, cynical irony is the hipster credo, and no one wants to be mistaken for a rube.  Smart is the new black, and you'd rather be hardened than foolish.

And "Cynic!!" repeats my demographic of expats, aid workers and world travelers   Here too, cynicism marks you as a respected "old head," someone who's been around so long you're no longer impressed by cultural differences and cannot be taken for a fool.  You view the wide-eyed wonderment of the newcomer with disdainful irritation. You're no longer her.

Culturally, I'm firmly part of these camps, which both wear cynicism like a badge.

But I'm also closet sucker.

Here's the story:

The other day when I was walking into the grocery store, I was approached by a man.  He was neatly dressed with an undercurrent of exhaustion, sweating and wiping his brow repeatedly.  He greeted me like he knew me and I was a bit embarrassed that I didn't recognize him.  "I sweep the grounds at Marigold school, where your son goes." he explained.

Nothing funny so far. People here are big into greetings, and as a minority we're often recognized.

His agitated state was explained as he launched into a horrible tale about his wife who, just the other night, was killed while riding on a motorbike right around the corner from where we stood.  He pointed to the very spot, where a woman was seated selling roasted maize, and described the car that hit her, a silver Prado.  He was running around that day trying to collect enough money to get the body released from the morgue when he recognized me.

I think:   Holy flipping s*#t!!!  That's horrible.  But sadly, I've come to know in my 2 years here, not uncommon.  Traffic accidents take as many lives as dreaded tropical diseases. We knew a child who was killed by a motorbike driver last year, and just yesterday a minivan, that our friend's daughter just missed boarding, crashed and killed 6.  And I've also learned that raising enough money to liberate a body from the morgue is financially crippling for a lot of families and can significantly delay funerals. His tale might sound tall elsewhere, but not here.

And asking an extended network of people for help from anything from weddings to funerals to medical bills is a common and often organized practice. I'm in a culture in which people survive by leaning on each other and there's no real taboo around asking for help.

But... but.... Then there's this nagging thought springing from my inner cynic, which says:  Are you kidding?  This is a perfect story.  Tragic with an immediate need. You've been approached in the US with elaborate stories of woe and knew them to be scams.  He's seen your car, that you have money. Don't be taken for a fool.  Most true cynics stop here and walk away.

But then this voice, which always seems to get me, counters: Well.... What if it is true?  And if it is, a few dollars, which you won't even miss, could make a world of difference to this person.  Moral calls of "What Would...um...  My Agnostic Conception of Spiritual Prophet... Do?" ring in my ears.  I want to err on the side of good.

Most people have rules about this.  Just adopt a policy about never giving to strangers so you never have to struggle with indecision. They say, donate to organizations that you know are doing some good.  But this wasn't a total stranger and I already donate and volunteer.  Those organizations are not going to help him out here.

So, what did I do? I gave him a little money and walked away with my trusting and cynical natures still battling each other.

And what did he do?  Well, I don't know.

I should end this here and save my pride, but the truth is, I found out later that he did not work at my son's school. I was scammed. I was taken.

But he didn't take my inner sucker. I like her.  I like the world she wants to believe in.  I like that she keeps me from becoming too jaded and spurs me to do good in the world.  I think I'll keep her around.  Even if it costs me a few shillings once in a while.

How do you treat these situations? Are other people as ambivalent as I am? Would you rather be a cynic or a sucker, jaded or trusting?

Monday, October 15, 2012

Flipping the Script on my Birthday

Today is my birthday.  But I'm exercising my God-given right to ignore it.

Except, then again, I'm dedicating a whole blog post to the subject, so I guess I'm old and a liar today.

You see the last three birthdays have been steeped in suckitude. In fact, they've been so crappy that they may have aged me more than a day, which defeats celebration of life that is suppose to be a birthday.  And so given that trend I just want to sit back and ride this one out.  Anyway, after the age of 21, if your birthday doesn't end in a "0" or a "5" it's not considered momentous.  Look it up.

Two years ago, we had just arrived in Kenya by my birthday. I didn't know anyone, my husband worked the whole day so I was home alone with a two year old, failing to cope with jetlag, nothing to do and noway to get anywhere.  My husband got me flowers, but I'm pretty sure I cooked dinner.  I may have cried.

Last year, we were more fully part of the community and I had friends.  And (or But?) my parents were in town for their big visit to East Africa. So, there was a lot of excitement about our travel and safari plans, and my birthday got swept under the rug of planning and anticipation.  Still, I baked myself a cake, found some candles and made my family sing to me.  Then I cried.

This year, I'm relatively new in Kisumu town, but have made some good friends. Still, I'm not the type to throw myself a party or organize an outing. Good news: If anyone has the motivation to plan something special it is a man who has watched his wife cry on her last several birthdays. So, I was really planning on cashing in on that chip this year.  But unfortunately, yet again, my husband also has to work.  On another continent.  So, unless we can get that space-time travel thing worked out, I'm out of luck.

So, my plan this year is to ignore. ignore. ignore.  It's just another day.  It doesn't have to mean anything.  It doesn't have to become a symbol of the joy that you are capable of and the love that you are surrounded by, and then fail to live up to some ideal.  No one has to know.

Except for the fact that I'm a triplet.  So, I have two of the people I love the most in this world to wish a Happy Birthday to and to receive one back, on the day I'm trying to ignore it.  And I also get to hear how they spent their day (surrounded by loved ones who've made efforts to make it special) which will outshine mine in spades. So, I guess I'll throw myself a pity party.  With cake.

Here's the thing: I love living abroad.  I love the adventure. I love learning about another culture, being challenged and in a constant state of discovery.  But every year on my birthday, it hits home.  That I'm not home.

The people who know me best and will most sincerely celebrate my life with me are oceans away.  And it's lonely.


Update: I wrote the above last night (Birthday Eve), and I guess it's true what they say about writing being cathartic, because I woke up today with a much different perspective.  I canceled my pity party.  I have a lot to feel grateful for.

I have two of the cutest, funniest most huggable children any two people have ever created. So, I started my birthday relishing in a snuggle and tickle party with the two loves of my life until I couldn't take it anymore.

I live in a part of the world in which most days are mid-80s and soaked in sun.  So, I went, without children, to the one resort in Kisumu, right on the lake, to luxuriate in the equatorial sun, read books with actual pages and have someone else bring me food and clean up my mess.  It was the first time I've been able to do something like that without being interrupted by progeny in 4 years. It was heaven.
Bonus, no one was there when I got there so it was like my own private spa retreat!
I have a neighbor who has become my closest friend here.  She took me and the kids out for Indian food and back to her house to present me with a cake she had baked earlier that day.  Her sisters and brothers all sang for me (unprompted) as Caleb and her daughter ran around chasing each other.  This birthday, like the others, I almost cried.  Because I was happy.  
Susan is as beautiful inside as she is outside.  (Those of your read my last post may notice I "stepped it up" with the dangly earnings for my big foray out of the house...)

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Letting myself go.

One of my favorite things to do is stare out the window of a moving car.  It's one of the only socially sanctioned spacing-out times we have left. You can't do it from your couch, what with children and dishes and Facebook beckoning.  Spacing out in bed quickly descends into sleep.  So, the passenger seat of our car is my zone out temple.  And I especially love gazing out the window here in Kenya where there's always something interesting to look at mid-reverie.

So, I was settling in for some delicious space-out time on a recent car ride, when I saw her.  She was a vision of style and beauty perched, improbably, on the back of a motorbike, her shiny turquoise pumps resting on the pedals. She had on body-hugging blue jeans, "statement" earnings and form flattering top that perfectly paired with her shoes. She held her back straight and regal, an unlikely feat given the large leopard print handbag balanced precariously between herself and the motorbike driver.

We drove close enough to see that remarkably, almost magically, her weave was unaffected by the wind, her considerable make-up unaffected by the dust. I couldn't look away.  Her style was a bit too Samatha Jones for my taste, but she was killing it.
Since I'm not in the habit of taking pictures of beautiful strangers, I'm relying on this stock photo. But it's not far off...
To set the record straight, I've personally looked that put together maybe... arguably... on my wedding day and zero other times.  But I looked from that vision on a motorbike and then back down at what I was wearing - the shirt I slept in and yoga pants with bits of flour from the morning's pancakes - and spoke my thoughts aloud to my husband: "I've really let myself go, haven't I?"

His non-response said it all.

And it's true. I have. Maybe it's the weather or being a mom to small children or working from home, but I no longer take much pride in my appearance.  And not in a anti-establishment, neo-hippy, down-with-the-fashion-industrial-complex kind of way.  In an apathetic, my husband will want to have sex with me anyway and I no longer care what anyone else thinks kind of way.  It's exactly what millions of boyfriends have feared marriage will do to their coiffed and toned girlfriends.

I've been wearing flip flops nearly every day for going on 2 years now, shower maybe every other day and have completely given up on make-up.  For the rare evening out, I'll step it up with the jeans that make my butt look good and a pair of dangly earings. Done and done. (No... I did not forget to mention the shower.... Why?)

No Kenyan has ever called me out on my lackluster appearance - they're too polite.  But I see the way they dress and wonder what they must be thinking of my get up.

You see, that vision on a motorbike was not an anomaly.  I constantly find myself staring at people here wondering how they manage to look like they stepped out of a catalog when they likely just stepped off a motorbike, walked down a dusty path and emerged from a sweltering matatu.

When I worked in Busia (a small border town) I led a team of Kenyan field officers, who would cover miles each day in rural villages to conduct household surveys.  In the rainy season it was hard to avoid mud, and the dry season blew dust everywhere.  Yet these field officers would come to work in suits and heals and return from the field at the end of the day as spotless as they started it. It baffled me to no end.
Field officer (from another project) looking like a city professional while measuring school kids in a rural area.

The two on the left are two senior field officers meeting with village chiefs. 

And I never had the chutzpah to ask anyone how this happens. There's something somehow impolite about a "how do you stay so clean?" inquiry.  But I recently read a fantastic essay* from a woman who faced a similar mystery living in Nicaragua. She found a delicate way to ask her Spanish tutor, and he replied:

"When being clean is the way you can show your dignity … when being clean is how you show that you are worth something, you pay attention to be clean."

This sentiment seems to ring true here, where people with next to nothing show up to church looking like African royalty.  

When we lived in Busia, I once offered to take one of Caleb's playmates to the doctor. His mother was happy for the help, but then asked me to wait while she brought her son back inside.  Fifteen minutes later, he emerged in his Sunday's best, button-down shirt, fancy black shoes and all.  The doctor's office was only a stone's throw away down a dirt path, but it was a public place with more educated people liable to judge you.  

All of this has gotten me thinking a lot about why we make an effort at our appearance at all.  I suppose it's a signal of how others should treat you.  It's a statement that you value yourself even if the world you live in doesn't always.  And it's also a cover for insecurity that if you don't look a certain way others might condescend to you.   

So, it's really from a place of privilege and comfort, a place of security that I can let all of that go.  That I can "let myself go."

And all of that is what I should have said to my husband in response to his loaded silence.

He would then have conceded my point, told me he loves me no matter what, and gently asked me to go brush my teeth and find a clean shirt.


* This was an essay by Margot Page in Brain Child magazine, which you must start reading. I think of it as the Mom Yorker.  It's the only magazine geared toward mothers that is not sappy, polemical of full of product placement.  Instead it's full of thought-provoking essays on motherhood and childhood by fantastic writers.  

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

What did you get on your pre- pre- pre- pre- SATs? Oh, too bad.

My front porch was filled with pastel sidewalk chalk designs.  The classic pre-schooler executed squiggly lines, circles and Picasso-esque faces that will advance over time into happy faces, dolphins and actual letters of the alphabet.  Caleb, now in school, was in fact practicing some of these letters. His C was sometimes backwards and his A was a triangle, but I was impressed he was even attempting letters.

His good friend, the guard, thought otherwise.

"No Caleb" he said erasing with his palm the superfluous line on his capital A. "You don't need this line here. See?"

Caleb, being three, stubbornly insisted he was correct.

The guard turned to me and asked, "Mama Caleb, what position is Caleb in school?"

Me: "Um... do you mean, what rank is he in his class? I have no idea. He's only three."

Totally missing my point, he continued. "Well, what did he get on his exams?"

His "exams"?!?!

Um.... First of all, what exactly are you implying here, guy? My boy ain't no dummy.

And secondly:  He's three!

Thirdly: THREE!!  He still needs my help tying his shoes and occasionally wets his pants.  He's three.  Should he really be subjected to exams and rankings?

You know, I figured being in Kenya we could escape the Manhattanite your-baby-can-read cut-throat competitiveness that has been infamously creeping earlier and earlier. But then someone asks me how my three year old has fared in his "exams."

Truth is, schooling is a serious issue here. It makes sense that in a country with high unemployment, an enormous do-or-die premium is placed getting as much schooling as possible.  And entrance to University is completely based on a test.  GPAs, extra-curriculars, an eloquent admission essay get you nothing.  Have a bad test day, and you're screwed.

It can help having gone to a good secondary school (high school), but to do that, guess what?  You better perform well on another test.  If you do, you win admission to a federal secondary school and are set up for further success.

Exams are so important that most schools have a "prayer day" in which parents are invited to come to school and pray with their children for high marks on exams.  When I first heard about prayer day, I thought it was hilarious.  Like the nation had enshrined a desperate teenager's hail Mary the day before a big exam, "Please God let me do well," into a formal tradition.  But it makes more sense to me now. You do all the preparation you possibly can, and then you pray. Don't leave anything this important to earthly chance. May as well call in some deities.

The great expense and effort that goes into schooling children and helping them do well is one of the great under-reported stories from this continent.  The most common financial struggle I've heard from people living on the margins is paying school fees. Every single mother I interviewed during my village stay mentioned obtaining enough school fees as her number one stressor as a parent. Primary school is now subsidized by the government (though this has led to overcrowding and an exodus to and proliferation of private schools), but secondary school is a big expense.  Of those who can even afford it at all, parents spend, on average, 55% of their income on secondary school.  That's more than half of their income on high school alone.

Tell that to anyone who says or implies that what keeps countries poor is people's apathy or inertia to better their lot.  Living here you regularly see children walking to school before the sun is fully up and then coming home in the evening.  You see them in school uniforms on Saturdays.  You see them going to extra classes during their school holiday.

I'm not saying children should go to school all those hours and years.  And I'm not saying anything about the pedagogy of the Kenyan education system.  High stakes testing is currently driving out creativity and critical thinking in the US, and it's no different here.  Too much time in the classroom  leaves little room to develop other important life skills. There's room for improvement everywhere.

I guess what I'm saying is that even though I'm terribly annoyed that someone feels it appropriate to ask how my pre-schooler (That's his age group.  Pre. School) is ranked in comparison to his classmates, I understand where this comes from.  The drive to grab a slice of the pie is more desperate in a country with not enough slices for everyone.  And that drive percolates down to the youngest ages.  Even Caleb's class.  A class called "Baby Class."
Because each post needs a picture: A sample of Caleb's homework. (the teacher started it for him to show him what color he should use.)

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Sweetest Potato (and a rare recipe)

I have to confess, for a good chunk of my adult life dinner consisted of tortilla chips and salsa. Carbs and veggies right?  Prep time: Zero minutes.  Clean up: 30 seconds.  If I was feeling particularly ambitious, I would pick up the phone and have someone make me a pizza.

In my defense I spent a good part of my 20s as a modern dancer (read: waitress) and then 3 years in grad school.  Neither lifestyle is particularly conducive to a healthy diet or regular meals. Plus, cooking an actual dinner with multiple food groups and ingredients always seemed like a waste of effort when it was just me eating.  

But now that I have a family, and people to notice and enjoy my efforts, I've become bona fide cook.  I plan and prepare dinners that include sides.  God help me, this week I made breaded tilapia with a homemade pineapple salsa and garlic mashed cauliflower potatoes.  Here in Kenya I'm also forced to make a lot more from scratch: salad dressings, sauces, tortillas, naan, pizza.  It's fun, a creative outlet, and I'm not half bad at it. 

But one thing I cannot get here is a good sweet potato. You can easily find what are called "viazi tamu" (literally, sweet potatoes), but they are nothing like what Americans picture.  They are large tubers with white flesh and little sweetest to speak of. They also lack the nutritional benefits of their orange fleshed counterparts.

Not so sweet potatoes

Slight, and probably negligible, inconvenience to this budding gourmand.  Huge problem for the nutritional status of my country-mates. 

Most African staples, like maize, cassava and millet, are full of energy but lack important micronutrients which can help people, especially children and pregnant women, fight off disease.  But newly introduced varieties of sweet potatoes (the kind most Americans eat ruined by 
marshmallows at the Thanksgiving table) can help make up this difference. For example, certain varieties of sweet potatoes can help fight vitamin A deficiency, which contributes to high rates of blindness, disease, and premature death in children and pregnant women and threatens an estimated 43 million sub-Saharan children under age 5. That's a pretty powerful potato.

In my province of Kenya, the Sweet Potato Action for Security and Health in Africa or (SASHA) is providing vouchers for sweet potato vines to pregnant women, with the double benefit of encouraging pregnant women to seek pre-natal care and to eat, sell and feed others micronutrient-rich food.  

Still, food preferences are often stubborn and slow to change.  Even hungry people will sometimes refuse unfamiliar food - especially people who are used to a staple food. An informal survey of my Kenyan friends tells me that the sweet potato juggernaut has not penetrated our area. 

But I have hope.  Kenyans often describe food as "sweet" the same way we would call it "good" or "tasty," as in, "This meat stew is very sweet."  I'm taking that to mean there might be a cultural preference for sweet, as opposed to spicy or salty, food.  This bodes well for Old Orange Flesh. And newly introduced crops can quickly become preferred.  Let's just say Italy knew not the tomato until it made it's way from the New World.  The sweet potato might have just a bright a future here.  

The World Moms Blog, is working to bring attention to this issue.  This Saturday the blog is featuring sweet potato recipes from it's contributors. (If you're interested in learning more about this issue, see http://www.harvestplus.org/ and http://www.cipotato.org/)

So, while this is decidedly not a food blog, to honor this cause, I'm going to share one of my favorite recipes with you.  

Black Bean and Sweet Potato Quesadillas

Source: www.Eatliverun.com
- Diced onion (small)
- 2 cloves of garlic chopped
- 1 tspn cumin
- 1/2 tspn chili powder
- 2 cans of black beans
- 1 large or 2 small sweet potatoes (shredded)
- 1 cup shredded monterray jack and cheddar cheese
- 8-10 tortillas
- oil or butter (for cooking)

- Sautee onion and garlic for 5 minutes. Add cumin and chili powder
- Add black beans and sweet potato and cook for another 10 minutes.  This is your filling.
- Heat up your oil or butter and layer tortilla - cheese - filling - cheese tortilla.  Cook for 2-3 minutes, flip over and repeat on other side.  
- Serve with salsa or sour cream.


Tuesday, October 2, 2012

How do you know if you like your kid's school?

When we lived in Busia, Caleb's education (if you want to think of it that way) consisted of running around outside with a mixed aged group of kids and very few toys.  It consisted of learning a second language and eating, by default, mainly local organic food.  By plopping ourselves in a part of the world that many Americans might fear for malaria and unclean water, we had inadvertently approximated a Park Slope hipster mom's dream.

Now that he's 3 1/2 and solidly school aged, by Kenyan standards, we have enrolled him in a Kenyan pre-school.  And cue the undoing of the Montessori-like bilingual fresh air dream....

The Kenyan school system is the result of a British colonial legacy and high stakes testing environment.  The rule of the day is call and response learning and the more time in school the better.  Kids really do enter "school" at the ripe age of 3, go for long days and even attend class on Saturday.  The government recently outlawed the endemic practice of students attending even more classes during their holiday break both because the extra costs gave an unfair advantage to wealthier families and because of the argument that the children need some time to "rest their brains."

But Caleb is only 3, so he's immune to a lot of this.  He attends, a level called "Baby Class," which he stubbornly insists on calling "Big Boy Class." There are toys in his room.  And nap time.  There's a lot of singing and playing outside.  His teacher welcomes him each day by swooping him up in her arms and giving him a hearty maternal embrace.

And yet... There are uniforms and homework.  There is a teacher at the front of the class teaching things. We were told there was no corporal punishment, but I saw a kiboko (switch) situated in the corner of one of the classrooms.

Montessori!?!?  Too good to be true.  And isn't. Any school that wants a bit of Italian flair and has a paint brush can adopt this name.

Favorite part of the morning.  Circle time and singing.  Despite their expressions in this photo, the kids LOVE it.

I really didn't know how to feel about all of this.

I wanted to understand so I asked if I could observe for a morning.

Here's the thing: I'm not an early childhood education specialist.  I'm just a nervous mom, which might give me an advantage (I care a lot so I look more critically) or a disadvantage (I care a lot so I look hyper-critically) depending on how you want to see it.

When we were researching day cares in the US I had the same feeling. I armed myself with the "10 questions you should ask your day care provider" and they all had acceptable answers.  Again, I'm not a child development expert.  I'm a mom, which means I simply had sex and procreated.  When I was studying public policy, these people were studying infants and toddlers. So, who am I to assess the developmental worth of "circle time"?

But, being that I'm in a new country and really had no idea what was happening at school, I felt it more necessary to at least know what his day looked like. So, I plunked myself in the corner of the room and observed. (The kids bored of the novelty of having a visitor quickly.)

And after a day there, I still don't quite know what to feel about it.  There are a lot of plusses.  They teach phonics.  The homework is tailored to each kid's level, and they work, Waldorf-like, incorporating science, language and math around a different theme each week. It's a small school and the teachers seem to know almost all of the students.

And yet, there was still some:

Teacher (pointing at a picture): "These are the members of the family.  The what?"
Kids in unison: "The family!"
Teacher:  "The what?"
Kids:  "The family!"

Teacher:  "The what?"
Kids:  "The family!"

And so on.

English, the instructional language, is a second language for most of the kids, so the lessons include sometimes basic noun identification.

And then there was this:  When one of the kids refused to listen to the teacher, she asked the other kids sing  arousing little ditty I'll call "the shame song."  It goes like this: "Shame, shame, shame on you.  May all the monkeys nus (indecipherable) on you. A big big shame on you. Behave yourself!"  The child subsequently fell in line.

I still don't know how to evaluate any of this. I've been reading a lot of the new research on what skills are truly important to inculcate - what skills they need for success in school, and most importantly, in life.  And it's not what you'd expect.  It's things like the ability to wait, to control yourself, to follow instructions, to get along with peers, to persevere in the face of obstacles.  It's not the cognitive stuff Western parents are often so obsessed with.

And I think his school environment promotes these skills. He has to share.  He has to wait. He has to put on his uniform each morning.  He has to (even if to avoid the shame song) follow instructions. He's learning how to learn and learning how to get along.

I may not be an expert in child development, but I am an expert in my child.  I know he's exceedingly social and thrives around other kids.  He's told me in no uncertain terms that home is "boring."  For Caleb, pre-school makes sense.  And, maybe at this tender age, I should just stop over-thinking it and judge the school day from the enormous smile it puts on his face.