I had forgotten how enormous the Forbidden City is. Thank goodness. If I had remembered, I may not have so enthusiastically dragged my husband and kids there. Still let-lagged. In a heat wave. Or at least I would have insisted we take a taxi, instead of walk, from our (allegedly) conveniently located hotel, so we could have started the walk within the Forbidden City with all our energy. And, so we could have started an hour earlier. There ought to be a “with kids” setting on Google maps that considers the average walking speed of a toddler, or of an adult carrying said toddler, and also builds in a pee break for every 30 minutes of travel, a snack break every hour, that sort of thing.
Don’t get me wrong. The Forbidden City is amazing, and I’m glad we went. The gigantic palace complex was constructed in the 1400s, and being there feels like stepping back in time. The architecture is stunning, and there are artworks and artifacts throughout, providing lots of fodder to imagine life for the emperors and their families who lived there for almost 500 years, from the Ming to the Qing dynasty.
The complex consists of almost 1,000 buildings across 180 acres. And, man oh man, it feels like it. Also, I read that an average of 15 million people visit The Forbidden City each year. Well, just you wait, I am sure this year there will be reports about how that number mysteriously doubled in 2018, but it won’t be mysterious to me, because it felt like 15 million were there with us on the day we visited.
We had no tour guide for this one. Or, I was the tour guide. I mean, I’d been there twice, and the audio tour is solid, so I figured I could be our representative expert and give everyone a nice CliffsNotes version of things. But, with the crowds, the awful heat, and the meltdowns happening with increasing frequency among our three sons as we dragged everyone through the complex, it was tough for me to get a lot of information across to my family. I felt like I was shouting into a hairdryer.
So mostly, on our me-guided tour, I’d shout the name of a hall or a gate or some other building and point to it, and we’d walk over – all five of us gripping each other’s hands, making a chain, so no one got lost in the swarms of people packed around us – and then we’d read the sign/placard outside of whichever site we’d chosen to look at. We took turns reading aloud to each other, except for Asa, who would run around sweating or sometimes pound the sign like a drum, trying to get his family’s attention back on him, the greatest attraction of all.
Once, the placard-drum-pounding became particularly annoying to Jaspar, who screamed, “ASA STOP! ASA I AM TRYING TO READ THIS!” and then when Asa did not stop (he pounded louder, actually, thrilled to be noticed by his brother), Jaspar began chasing Asa around and around the sign. Jaspar quickly caught him, grabbed his arm, yelled again right in his face, and – because I’m sure anyone reading this wants the details of this fight – that grab of Asa’s arm was met with a pinch which was met with another pinch which inspired a whack, then a kick, and well, I had to pull them off of each other a few seconds later.
I snuck into a small pocket of shade with Jaspar while Reza took Asa and Cyrus in the opposite direction, to another patch of shade a few feet away. After I calmed down myself, Jaspar and I talked. I squatted down and looked in his eyes. “Jaspar,” I said, “Honey you can’t do that to Asa. You are bigger than him. You have to show him what it means to stop fights, not keep them going. You need to be a peacemaker.” I reminded him that this was even one of our values as a family.
Jaspar looked down at the ground, then up at me. “Yeah. But I don’t really feel like being a peacemaker sometimes.”
I wasn’t sure what to say. His honesty touched me. As an older sibling myself, I remember feeling like it was a raw deal, having to be the bigger one and set an example for my little brother (who is and always has been the greatest person on the planet, despite my lack of consistent good-example-setting). And I’m not in the habit of telling my kids what they “can” and cannot feel. So if Jas didn’t feel like being a peacemaker, that’s how he felt. No argument. But his behavior wasn’t OK.
We were quiet for a little while. I acknowledged his feelings, and then made some sort of closing statement at some point, I don’t remember exactly how I worded it but it was basically: I hear you, but you need to be kind anyway, and you need to do your best to help Asa be kind, even when you don’t feel like it. And when you mess up, you need to fix things. So go fix things.
We met back up with the other half of our crew, everyone apologized, and we kept walking. Well, walking implies a sort of confidence… we kept wandering. I knew there were three main halls within the complex – the Hall of Preserving Harmony (Baohe Hall), the Hall of Central Harmony (Zhonghe Hall) and the Hall of Supreme Harmony (Taihe Hall) – but I had lost track of where we were and which one we’d been looking at. So we just walked up to the nearest one, and tried to re-start our little tour again.
As we stood and began reading the sign, telling us we were standing in front of the Zhonghe Hall, I noticed something interesting with the translation. I hadn’t ever paid much attention to the Hall of Central Harmony (it hadn’t struck me as that interesting, it is smaller than the other two halls, used by the Emperor to rest before and during ceremonies) but apparently, it is sometimes also called The Hall of Medium Harmony. This was what our current sign, the one we were staring at just now, called it. Medium Harmony. Not Supreme Harmony, just, you know, Medium. I laughed out loud and showed Jaspar. It took some explaining, and some Goldilocks and the Three Bears references, but soon he got the joke too.
Perfection is impossible. It’s unachievable. It’s was good for me to be reminded of that. We should strive to be our best selves, though. I want my kids to be their best selves. I can’t make them, but I can try to inspire them, and help them set realistic goals around the values we hold as a family.
Supreme harmony may never be words to describe the way our three boys get along. They do really, really well. But they’re going to bicker, and argue, and sometimes those arguments will escalate. Medium harmony though? That, Jaspar and I agreed, that could be just right.
author of #claywaterbrick. cofounder of @kiva. instructor at @USC. investor at @collabfund. in love w @rezaaslan + our three boys.