November 18, 2010


By living in Central Asia a family has to give up many things that are thought to be a normal part of living in the West. In case of children, it might not be as tangible when they are very small. During the early years being home with mommy is all they really need and want. They have educational toys, they have non-educational toys, they have coloring books, they have story tapes in their mother languages, they have books for children and all the other stuff we can carry in in our suitcases.

Then there are things we cannot carry into the country in our suitcases. Play dates with children who speak their mother language(s). Baby music groups. Child friendly cafeterias. Sunday schools. Kids choirs. Skiing tracks. Ice skating on a lake.

And the children grow bigger and you start to wonder if they are missing life.

But then, depending on a city your are living in, you will find surprises. There might be ballet lessons of professional standards. There might be a superb music teacher right in your neighborhood, who can teach piano, violin and guitar for a fraction of the price the lessons would be in the West. You might find football (sorry Americans; soccer) clubs for girls! And then there might be gymnastic practices. With a Soviet trained former gymnast. Who takes in all the age groups at the same time, five days a week.

I admire him a lot. I would not be able to do it. Well, I do not mean the gymnastics part of it, which obviously I could not even dream of doing. In my youth, though, I used to go to gymnastics after school and remember doing a cartwheel on a one meter high balance beam and landing on the floor right way up and successful. But it was a long time ago. Very long. I have new bone cells today, and they have not experienced anything like that.

I could not handle dozens of lively children of all ages running around a large exercise hall and trying to teach them all the gymnastic tricks like he does. But it all starts with an authority and strict order. First, the teacher has a firm, loud voice that he is not afraid of using. Also he often carries something 'longer than the arm', as we say in Finnish, in his hands. Usually it is a edge piece of the foam mattress that covers the floor. He uses it to emphasize the movement 'up' or 'faster'. He uses it as a rod to guide the astray sheep back into the line. He uses it to touch a noisy child to remind him to concentrate on his sit ups and not on talking. He uses it to hit the rhythm on his knee for push ups. And third, he actually has some help by older children who are very good at gymnastics and sometimes take over the lesson for him.

It has been a cultural lesson for us, especially the parents. I am not sure if teachers in the west are as quick to touch the children. At least not with a long piece of foam.

(My daughter in pink, of course, deep in the trampoline.
My son, reclining on the pillows, waiting for his turn.)

But our children are so happy and proud when they come home and have learnt to do a 'bridge' or somersault. They have really flexible spines, those children.

And when they see the older boys, teenagers, run and jump and do double volts and stuff like that they get really excited. 'Mommy, when I grow up I will be able to do that!'. And when I see the older kids running and jumping and doing double volts I wish I could touch my toes with my knees straight.

(My daughter, up in the air. This is the reason to have a ponytail.
My son, exhausted and falling asleep on the pillows).

Our children go there twice a week and it has been enough so far. My son is the youngest, but not the smallest. Some local children are really small for their age. There is this grandfather who brings in his two grandsons. They boys are small and cute. They try to keep up with the other children, running last on the long line of children. The smaller one does not even understand the language (they speak a minority language at home). They are trying to learn to do a somersault. They are hopeless in sit ups and push ups. It is really fun to look at them. But the greatest part is to watch their grandfather observing the lesson.

He is sitting on the side of the long hall wearing his black jacket and black and white skull cap. His skin is tanned and his hair is shaved really short. His face, with Mongolian features, is full of lines and wrinkles. The wrinkles get really obvious when he is sitting there observing, because he can't stop smiling. He is looking at these little boys running in their training suits and his whole face is lit up, beaming with pride and joy. He is smiling so hard that his golden teeth shine across the room. During the lesson, a whole hour, he never stops smiling. He never takes his eyes off the boys. Sometimes he chuckles, often he gives them an encouraging nod.

I just love looking at him being so proud of his grand children. And then I look at my children and notice that I have the same kind of proud and amused smile on my face. After all, they are the very cutest and darlingest of them all.

Except when I see my son pushing his sister who is running in front of him. And when I notice him to attach his chewing gum on the back of her gymnastics outfit. In the moments like this I am happy to leave him in the hands of a living, loud gymnast teacher.

(The chewing gum eventually came out. I forgot the gymnastics outfit in the freezer box for two weeks and was looking for it everywhere. And I sometimes wondered about the pink thing I could see through the frosty door of the freezer box. Pink? I thought to myself. Did I put something in a pink freezer bag in there? Did I buy pink meat? But it is all clear now. My daughter is back in pink. Thanks for asking.)

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