Care, Compassion, Change


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I used to identify as pro-life…I think in many ways I still am pro-life. I understood that there were some circumstances where a woman might terminate a pregnancy, I was uncomfortable with the idea of people getting abortions ‘willy-nilly’. Yes, I thought women who have been raped should have access to abortion. Yes, I thought women should be free to travel if they wanted to have an abortion. But to have them here in Ireland? Not sure about that - it shouldn’t be too easy to get. I didn’t want people to start “using abortion as a form of contraception”. I thought, if they want it badly enough, they’ll travel.

I think my views were very similar to those held by many Irish people, we don’t like abortion but we also recognise that in certain situations it may be necessary. I have thought about this issue and the 8th amendment a lot in the months since having my third baby. I still don’t like abortion, but no-one does. Absolutely no-one. Yet now I identify as pro-choice. How did I get here? This is how…

When does life begin?

I believe life begins at conception. It’s one of the reasons I’ve always struggled with the concept of abortion. But does the life of the unborn have the same value as the mother?

I think it’s somewhat disingenuous for our society, our constitution, to say that the rights of the unborn are equal to that of the mother - because they don’t mean it, not really. Looking at it another way, are the rights of the unborn equal to that of a toddler? They don’t think so - they have never thought so. Ask any woman who has had a miscarriage and has been expected to just jump up and get on with life, or is told that “at least she has the other children” or “next time”. She is not treated like a woman who has just lost a child - we do not treat her like a woman who is grieving the loss of a baby. We say things like “at least it was only 10 weeks” or “maybe it’s for the best”. Can you imagine anyone saying that about the death of 2 year old?

The language we use is different too. We talk about women “having a miscarriage” or “losing a pregnancy” - we talk about in terms of her body, her anatomy, her loss. It’s not until much later in pregnancy, close to the point of viability, where the language changes and we shift the vocabulary from the mother to the baby.

Why can’t the baby be put up for adoption?

This is a hard one for me too. If a woman doesn’t want to or can’t raise a child, why can’t she just put it up for adoption?

As someone commented recently on the internet “my womb is not your herb garden”. A woman should not be forced to grow a child against her will - we are more than soil. A society that makes women who are pregnant continue with the pregnancy and give the child up for adoption is a cruel one. That is no different from the Magdalene laundries. We are past that - we are better than than kind of slavery - we have evolved - or at least I thought we had.

Adoption can be a beautiful thing. I am in awe of women who continue with their pregnancies and, at the end, pass their child over to another family. But it has to be consensual. We can't force adoption upon women in crisis.

Is one abortion better or worse than another?

I think most people agree that abortions should be available to women in certain circumstances, like rape. There are those that feel that even in these circumstances, a woman should have to carry her rapist’s child. If this is your view, you probably should vote to keep the 8th amendment. But for everyone else, who thinks there should be circumstances in which it is allowed, I would ask you consider whether the issue is just the abortion itself or the circumstances in which a woman became pregnant.

Abortion is abortion is abortion. A foetus conceived in rape is no less a life, has no fewer rights, than one conceived in other circumstances. So why is it ok after rape, but not in any other circumstance? Is it because with rape we can vaguely imagine the horror that forcing a woman to carry her rapist’s child would subject her to? But we can’t imagine why a married woman with two small children already should be able to get one.

Not all horrors are ones we can see or understand. What about the woman who suffers from hyperemesis gravidarum (extreme sickness) in pregnancy so severely that another pregnancy would leave her unable to care for her existing children? What about the married mother who has a history of pre-natal psychosis and cannot risk that happening again? What do we know of other people’s lives. If a woman is in crisis to the point that she would terminate her pregnancy, who are we to judge whether her reason was deserving enough to make it ok for us?

We can’t just sit up on our moral throne and dictate who “deserves” an abortion. What kind of society does that make us, that we are more concerned by other people’s morality than anything else?

This is also why the referendum is proposing that abortion be available to women before 12 weeks gestation, regardless of circumstances. To do anything else would be to subject women to a trial of morality - you would have to force a raped woman to prove that she was raped, to make her case to a panel or a jury who would then decide if she was deserving enough. You would make her go through it again.

Women have to be allowed to deal with their own issues themselves, they shouldn’t have to convince strangers that they are desperate, the fact that they request an abortion should be enough. No-one should have to turn out their souls to salve our consciences.


How do we reduce the number of abortions?

This is the real issue. We do not want to see a high abortion rate. Abortion is not a lovely thing. It may be a necessary thing, but the lower the better. So here are the facts:

Criminalising abortion does not result in lower rates of abortion. In fact, the opposite is true. In Africa and Latin America, where abortion is illegal in most circumstances in the majority of countries, the abortion rate is 29 and 32 abortions per 1,000 women of childbearing age respectively. Conversely, in Western Europe, where abortion is generally legal to a greater or less extent, the abortion rate is 12 abortions per 1,000 women of childbearing age. These statistics point to a correlation between restrictive legislation and high abortion levels(Source: WHO)
http://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/publications/unsafe_abortion/induced_abortion_2012.pdf

In Switzerland, for example, where abortion is available in the first trimester regardless of the circumstances. The rate of abortion is 7.1 per 1,000 women (and that’s including women who aren’t ordinarily resident in Switzerland).

I know there are a lot of posters up saying that 1 in 5 pregnancies in the UK are terminated but, as we always like to tell other people, we are not the UK. The UK rate of abortion is 17 per 1,000 women.

Let’s not be the UK, let’s be Switzerland.


Constitutional NIMBYism

It was only somewhere around my second or third pregnancy that I became fully aware that travelling was never the deterrent, abortion itself is its own deterrent. Having brought three children into the world, I really believe that nobody comes to that decision easily or with a light-heart. It is physically and emotionally draining and painful. So why are we making women in crisis travel to the UK to undergo these procedures alone, without proper care, without proper support?

Because we don’t want it in our own back yard.


Does the 8th amendment do what it’s supposed to?

The 8th amendment was designed to prevent abortion - it doesn’t. Ireland is not, has never been, and never will be abortion free.

At least 150,000 Irish women have travelled abroad for abortions. And these are only the ones they can count. This figure also does not include those who procure abortion pills on the internet.

If you want a society where abortion does not happen, under any circumstance, what you need is not the 8th amendment, but a time machine to take you back to the 1950’s and a sand pit in which to stick your head.


Maternity Care

While this is a peripheral issue for most in the debate on the 8th amendment, the vast majority of women who are affected by the 8th amendment are happily pregnant and looking forward to the arrival of their children.

They are pregnant in a system where the legislation enshrines principles which fundamentally remove their right to bodily autonomy. At the end of the day, the decisions that govern how a woman’s body will be treated during pregnancy and labour are not her own. Other people have the final say over what happens to her body.

As a result, pregnant women in Ireland are treated like toddlers. They are infantilised and patronised. Procedures (episiotomy, membrane sweep, artificial rupture of waters, induction) are frequently performed on them without their consent because, when it comes down to it, they do not have an inviolable right to withhold consent. And women don’t want to put their babies at risk, so they do what they’re told. But it’s no way to have a conversation.

Women should always have the final say. They should always be asked “Is it ok if I push a metal hook up through your cervix and break the amniotic sac that you have protected your child with for all these months…is it ok if I do that?”. But they aren’t always asked, and it isn’t always, or even often, necessary. Pregnant women and women in labour are not imbeciles, they are mothers - they want to protect their children - they are capable of making an informed decision and, crucially, their only vested interest is their own child and their own body. Trust them.

Repealing the 8th Amendment

I have thought about and argued and discussed and pondered the 8th amendment back and forth for months, and I cannot think of one single logical reason to retain it. I don’t know how I feel about abortion - I don’t know if it’s something I will ever be fully comfortable with but my comfort and my conscience is not the issue here. The 8th amendment is not about whether we are morally opposed to abortion or not, it’s about how we treat women who have decided to terminate their pregnancies. It’s about care - it’s about compassion - it’s about taking our heads out of the sand and changing the way we treat these women.

The 8th Amendment does not save lives. It punishes women. It adds pain and strife to a woman whose plate is already overflowing with pain and strife.

Children are a blessing, they should never come into the world to punish someone else.

We are better than this.

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Enter the Bear

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You know what this blog needs? A birth story.

Please come back...I promise no-one eats their own placenta. In fact, I vow not to mention placentas at all. There. How can you resist an offer like that? It’ll be edifying and fun.

Ok, lets crack on. So in the autumn of 2016, I found myself ‘with child’ as the virgin Mary says. My joy was short-lived. I had morning sickness so unwavering and unrelenting that I would often cry with the thought of another day of work, children, house, awakeness. The exhaustion was crushing and never-ending - no amount of sleep filled my cup. People would sit beside me on the DART carrying with them viscous haze of cigarettes or perfume and I would have to clear my mind and think of a cool, mountain spring to stop me vomiting all over them. In work, I would hold on to my desk as the floor seemed to slide off to one angle and then retch violently into the bin. I don’t remember much - I think I blocked it out.

I’m writing this to formally note that the term ‘morning sickness’ is offensive to those ashen faced women who want nothing more than to crawl into bed and be knocked unconscious for months at a time. It implies that you wake up in the morning, feel a wee bit off-form for about ten minutes and then continue on with your day bathing in the warm light of that special glory reserved for those who are creating life. There is no glowing. There is only grinding, interminable nausea that sucks the joy out of every single thing in your life. But you’re not allowed to talk about it because your pregnancy is still supposed to be a secret at the point when you most want to turn into a mushroom and melt back into the earth. You continue as normal - working, commuting, cooking dinner (my kids ate sandwiches for dinner for three months) - because you’re only pregnant and you’re supposed to just get on with things. I deeply resent the ‘get on with things’ attitude attached to pregnancy. I’m making an actual human being - let me have a goddamn nap under my desk.

Sozfest. Got a bit carried away. Ok so let’s do what they do in the movies and skip over the next six months with a cheery montage of fun pregnancy activities which include standing precariously on a step ladder in dungarees with a paintbrush, running on a beach (*snort*) and sitting on the floor of the kitchen by the light of the fridge eating pickles and ice-cream. A more realistic montage would involve shots of me napping on the train, napping in the bean bag, napping on the floor of the children’s bedroom while they cry...the pickles and ice-cream scene can stay too - that happened.

This did not:

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Nor did this:

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Taking up the story again two days past my due date. I have just spent half an hour googling whether tom yum soup has ever induced labour...followed by whether tom yum soup is safe in pregnancy. I should have done both these things before I ate the tom yum soup. I also googled “Is back pain plus exhaustion a sign of impending labour”. It turns out it’s just a sign of being 38. I decided to go to sleep. I awoke two hours late with a sharp pain my cervix. One only really knows where one’s cervix is when the fecker starts doing something. For years, decades even, the cervix stands immovable and silent, like a stone wall, and then, as if the baby inside had silently whispered “open sesame” from the depths of his amniotic bubble, it starts moving. It’s not unlike a scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. In the dim lighting of our bedroom, Mr Oh does look a bit like Harrison Ford. I wake up to tell him I’m in labour. He mutters something inaudible that sounded a bit like “ok so” and started snoring. Indy would never have done that. I gave him a sharp, accidental kick in the upper thigh. It had no effect but to make me feel slightly better. Feeling underwhelmed by his reaction, I went downstairs to sulk/labour in the bean bag alone until morning.

The morning came, and I was still having contractions. Mr Oh remained deeply unmoved by the seismic event I was experiencing and pottered about the house making tea. At 10am, he decided to take Little A to his swimming lesson. I reminded him of the fact that I was in labour. He reminded me of the fact that my last labour went on for three days, it was incredibly boring and there were not enough snacks. He left. I made a sandwich and pulled out the TENS machine.

A TENS machine is a little device where a set of electrodes are attached to a labouring woman’s back and when she presses a button, the machine sends an electric pulse along the wires, into the electrodes and into the pregnant woman’s internal organs. I did not make this up. It is supposed to help with the pain of contractions. It is rooted in the well-known medical theory of distraction through electrocution. Every time you get a contraction, you press the buzzer on the hand-held taser and electricity courses into the kidneys. Imagine stubbing your toe, and as you’re reeling from the pain, someone slaps you in the face - that’s what a TENS machine is like. Super little device - it just confuses the pain out of you.

Mr Oh came back from swimming to find that I had not, in fact, given birth in the driveway. I was a bit disappointed - it would have been one hell of a ‘told you so’ and I am so not above having a roadside birth if it would bestow upon me enough martyred righteousness to power a decade’s worth of marital arguments. Instead, he found me bouncing on my swiss ball, still very much pregnant, electrocuting myself at irregular intervals and cursing.

He had the good sense to deposit Little A and Snugglepunk with the grandparents. I took this as a sign that he was ready to focus on the birthing of our child. I soon discovered that it was actually a sign that he was ready to focus on garden maintenance. By the time the front and back lawns were mowed, my contractions had become very painful. I handed him my phone and assigned him the job of timing the contractions while I paced up and down the back garden in the hope of regularising them. They say that once you cannot keep walking or talking through contractions, you’re seriously on your way to having a baby. After a series of contractions that fully stopped me in my tracks with a pain so intense that I could barely breathe as it exploded through my body, I wanted information on the interval between contractions and details of whether they were of regular duration and spacing. I looked up at Mr Oh, who was as you will remember tasked with compiling this information, and found that he had set my phone down on the path and was himself, on his hands and knees, trimming the edge of the lawn with a pair of kitchen scissors. It was unclear whether the stream of expletives that subsequently emanated from my person were as a result of the piercing contractions, the electrocution of the organs or the fecklessness of the husband.

At 3pm, I told Mr Oh that I wanted to go to the hospital. He said “No, it’s too early”. I thought (or maybe I said), “What would you know? You’ve been fixated on the grass for the last three hours, you wouldn’t notice if I was crowning on the patio”. I accepted that it was probably too early - my contractions weren’t yet regular but they were very strong. And I wanted to go to the hospital - I didn’t care if they sent me home again - I didn’t really want to give birth in the driveway, not even for the mother of I-told-you-so’s. And so we got into the Oscartavia (which is Little A’s name for the Skoda Octavia) - Mr Oh, me, the hospital bag and a giant pink birthing ball wedged into the back seat. And off we hurtled to the hospital, which was about 30 minutes away.

It was 10 June 2017, one of the hottest days of that year. The air-conditioning in the Oscartavia was broken so I had rolled down all the windows. As we approached the hospital, I felt relief wash over me. And then, as we zoomed right past the hospital door, relief was replaced with panic, disbelief and a soupcon of homicide. “What are you doing?” I demanded as the hospital faded in the distance behind us. “It’s too early”, Mr Oh said, “we’re going to Dun Laoighaire”.

“We are in my...oh, another contraction...” and I started hollering out the window.

Dun Laoighaire is a picturesque seaside suburb, 30 minutes south of the hospital. I think it’s a nice place but I did not want my baby to be born there, mainly because there is no maternity hospital in Dun Laoighaire. There is ice-cream, however. And Mr Oh suddenly had a hankering for ice-cream. As we got further and further away from the hospital, I contemplated opening my door and rolling out onto the road, but I was, at that exact moment, the wrong body shape for rolling. So, I sat in the car as we drove to Dun Laoighaire, gripping the edges of my seat as my labour marched onwards, blithely unaware of Mr’s Oh’s treachery and deceit. When we got there, the place was, naturally, jammed with people and the traffic slowed to a crawl. Tourists sauntered past the window, inches from me as I was loudly vocalising each contraction. Mr Oh tried to close the windows, presumably to stave off the mortification of your pregnant wife birthing in front of strangers. I did not give a flying fox who heard me so the windows stayed down. It was at that moment that I looked him in the eye and said ‘Take me back, now’. He looked longingly to the right as we approached the ice-cream shop with a long queue of people snaking along outside it. “Are you sure you don’t want to stop?” he said. To this day, I don’t know if he was joking.

We reached the hospital at 5pm...two hours after we left our house. Mr Oh still thought they would send me home but we were not only admitted but brought straight up to the labour ward and assigned a midwife, who confirmed that I was ‘definitely in labour’. There was an hour of gas and air (very disappointing really, I expected so much more), more electrocution and a lot of chanting birth meditations like ‘it’s not pain, it’s power’ (it is pain, in case you were wondering...lots and lots of pain). I was busy ‘breathing my baby down’ as they say when I hit what is known in the business as ‘the transition’. It’s the part that feels like you’re either going to die or are possibly, already dead. Gas and air was abandoned, the TENS machine was ripped off and I started cursing at everyone - Mr Oh, the lovely midwife, anyone who tried to talk to me. It was also the exact point when Mr Oh said, “I need to go and feed the parking meter”. My head whipped up, and my eyes locked on his. In a voice that I do not recognise as my own, I said “you can get clamped, or you can get divorced”. He chose clamped. It was the correct choice.

45 minutes later, I took a break from screaming my head off to tell the midwife that I was going home as I didn’t want to do this anymore. Apparently, this is really common in childbirth and is a sign that the baby is about to arrive. Sure enough, 2 minutes later, there he was.

It’s always a shock when the baby arrives. Right up until the very last moment, I never actually fully accept that there will be a baby. It’s not fear, it’s just that there is some kind of unseen curtain between pregnancy and birth - something inexplicable and dense - like a wall of tumbling, blinding light. They say that labour is the closest that you can come to death in a regular, ordinary, daily kind of way. There’s something about it that is not just primal but unearthly. There is no-one and then there is someone - a small, new, slightly blue someone.

I called him Bear.

That’s not his real name, the name he knows and already answers to. It’s his blog name. I called him Bear after Bear Grylls - because he’ll basically have to raise himself in the wild surrounded by predators and rely on his wits to survive. Such is the way of the third child.

I’ll stop now, before we have to talk about the placenta. Mr Oh did not get clamped in the end. Every time we talk about that trip to Dun Laoighaire, he has a look in his eyes that says “I told you so”. He’s too smart to actually say it out loud, but I know he’s thinking it.




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Guess Who's Back?

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So I took a break to have a sandwich and suddenly it’s two and a half years later...*ahem*...sorry folks. But in my defence, I have been busy. Ok, that’s a crap excuse. I’ll flog myself later but first let me catch y’all up (I’m in one of those moods where I speak only in my “southern belle” accent, I would therefore appreciate it if you could, in your head, read this entry as if you were born and bred slightly west of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Damn, I’m starting to sound Welsh again, this always happens eventually).

So, quick update on what I have been doing between 10 December 2015 and today.

1. I did make a lot of sandwiches, that was no word of a lie.

2. I bought a house. Irish people are very into home ownership. I think it may surpass both the weather, and sliced pan as far as national fixations go. I may have gotten married and had children (yes, I know the order is wrong) but home ownership is like hardcore adulting. I am definitely a grown-up now...maybe I have to stop wearing the green crocs first, but I am very close to full-scale maturity.

I should say that ‘we’ bought a house. I could never buy a house on my own. Firstly, I couldn’t afford to buy anything more than a well-appointed garden shed on my single salary. Secondly, and equally important, I needed Mr Oh to do the actual house buying which appeared to be inordinately complicated and time-consuming (and mostly dull). Mr Oh had a long list of criteria that he was looking for in a home so it seemed logical that he would take the lead. He wanted four bedrooms, a moderately proportioned garden, an easy commute to work, local amenities etc. I just wanted a roof, walls, enough garden space to grow a small fairy village, and to sleep no more than 300 paces from the sea.

The only problem we had with the house buying plan other than budget, Mr Oh’s unreasonable and lengthy list of criteria, and the severe lack of housing stock in Ireland is the small issue of the fact that we were not actually in Ireland. We were in China, where the internet has to creep through a gazillion firewalls to eventually flop lazily into your computer and then wants to take a nap before you try to do anything else with it. Thankfully, houses are not bought over the internet on the basis of fastest fingers. Mr Oh spent months scouring the property sites looking for suitable homes. There wasn’t much out there. Occasionally, we found something we liked - sent out some obliging parental scouts to assess the properties - and, once, we got caught up in a bidding war by email which was great fun. It mostly consisted of me sitting in my pyjamas in Shanghai drinking wine and shouting “ten more grand” at Mr Oh, who thankfully had more sense than to treat the bidding process like a souped up episode of The Antiques Roadshow. It was a relief when, after a protracted process of submitting increasingly unjustifiable offers on this particular house, we were finally outbid (I must have run out of wine and gone to bed). Sometimes we drive by the house that we lost and I am hit by a (small) wave of guilt that the current owners and winners of the bidding battle, paid a lot more for their house than they would have if we had just gone out for dumplings that night.

Eventually, and just when I was starting to think we would never find the right house - we did. It has four bedrooms and a moderately sized garden. It is accessible by public transport. There is a fairy garden. And it is no more than 300 paces from the sea.

Yesterday Snugglepunk, who is now almost four and really living up to the ‘punk’ part of his name, used the horn of his toy rhino to gouge out several pieces of plaster from the landing wall. Where once I would have been consumed by fear for ‘the deposit’ and the almost certain loss of the deposit that seems to follow when one has small, destructive, selectively deaf children...on this occasion, because it’s our own house, I just shrugged, smiled benignly and threw the rhino out the window.

3. We left Shanghai and moved back to Ireland. A lot of things went into boxes. They then went on a ship and about six months later they came out of boxes. Mr Oh still thinks I own too much stuff but I have whittled down my possessions to such an extent that the only two items of frivolity that I insist on hauling around the world with me are a pair of small clay elephants and a ceramic pot filled with tiny flag-shaped badges from different countries. He will someday admit that, while we do seem to have a lot of stuff, most of it, while not exactly his, is used to house, clothe and maintain humans that he created. Minimalism is for people who don’t have children.

4. I went back to work. After four years of not working outside the home (and not really working that much inside it either because the ayi did that), this was a bit daunting. On my return I discovered that, in my absence, the entire office had been updated to a new version of Windows so I spent most of the first month trying to figure out how to attach files to emails and wistfully wondering if my children were thinking of me as they toddled around their creche. They weren’t.

5. I made a new person. It would be pretty uncool if I just announced his arrival into the world with fewer characters than I dedicated to describing the attempted suicide of our pet goldfish so I will postpone his formal introduction until the next entry.

So, there you have it. House - country - job - human - sandwiches. That stuff takes 2.5 years.

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Me and My Zixingche

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I had an amazing bike. I bought it when I moved back to Ireland from Singapore and I had grand plans about cycling into work in St. Stephen's Green from our house in Stoneybatter. I got a semi-customised Trek bicycle with special hand grips (no idea of the technical name) for people with sensitive wrists. Eoghan had a Trek too so it was important to me that we had matching bicycles as a sign of our commitment as a couple. I later discovered that having children with someone renders relationship-affirming-matching-cycles superfluous.

Anyway, I loved my bike. It had a bell and a basket and lots of gears that I didn't know what to do with. I loved it so much that I took my chances along the quays in Dublin every morning, wedged in between double deckers and trying not to employ my general approach to scary situations (i.e. closing my eyes and waiting for the danger to pass). I cycled to work in the rain, when I was tired, when I was grumpy, when I didn't feel like cycling. I gave it up after the first trimester of pregnancy (first time mothers do things like that) and my beautiful bike was relegated to a dusty corner.

The bike didn't get dusted off until Little A was 9 months old and we bought a bike seat for it. The seat had to go on my bike because Mr Oh had a road bike which was not suited to bike seats (so he told me). The weight on the back freaked me out as I cycled carefully down the cycle tracks of Brussels - slow, flat and safe - wobbling and occasionally wailing in terror.

I got better with the extra weight on the back and when we went on our month long road-trip honeymoon to Cork, Inishbofin, Cornwall and Normandy, we took our baby and our bikes with us. Finally, the bike was back in action, with a passenger this time…one that used to pull down my pants from his seat behind me and laugh uproariously as I screeched at him. He also liked to wriggle his feet free and use my coccyx as a foot rest. All was rosy for my beautiful bike.

And then we moved to Shanghai where I took one look at the traffic and bid the bike farewell. We moved the child-seat to Mr Oh's road bike which, miraculously, we discovered had been capable of carrying children this whole time (imagine that!). For a while, this was a good solution. And then Snugglepunk came along and it became clear that, at some point, I was going to have to get back on the saddle...literally.

But you know, two years is time enough for a bit of traffic desensitisation to set in so, a few weeks ago, I decided that I would rather cycle Snugglepunk the 5km to baby-school rather than subject us both to being flung around the inside of the overcrowded buses for half an hour every morning.

So, I went down to get my bike. It had been so long, it was hard to identify. I had to look at photos of my bike from our honeymoon to make sure I had the right one. But the weird thing was, it had recently been serviced and there was a lock on it that was not mine. Once we had decided this was definitely my bike, we put our own lock on in and that marked the beginning of the great bicycle standoff of 2015. This lasted approximately three days before the building management tipped me off that the person responsible for unlawfully requisitioning my bicycle was another building resident. I sent my heavies round to deal with him. Ok, I sent Mr Oh round to discuss the matter politely and, within minutes, my bicycle had been liberated and the great bicycle standoff of 2015 came for a rather anti-climactic end.

So, no excuses left, I strapped a rather perplexed Snugglepunk onto the back and off we went. We almost fell off before I even got out of the garage because...well, I forgot how to ride my bike and Snugglepunk was screaming like a banshee.

We almost crashed into a motorbike before we got out of the laneway because, you know, it's China, and almost is the key word anyway. And we were off. Within the first ten minutes, three people stopped me to tell me that Snugglepunk was asleep and shout at me because it was dangerous. He wasn't actually asleep, he was just examining a leaf which had become stuck to his knee but I just kept cycling shouting "it's not dangerous" and throwing them my best contemptuous glare - turns out its hard to throw contempt safely from a moving bicycle.

It occurred to me later that the reason the Chinese freak out when they see a child asleep on the back of a bike is because, generally, in China, the child bike seats don’t have harnesses. They don’t tend to put children this young on the back of bikes (unless on the lap of their mother who is sitting side saddle across the pannier). So, naturally, they think Snugglepunk is in danger of falling out. I’ve had a few long chats with Chinese ladies on bicycles while we’ve been stopped at traffic lights and I’ve explained to them about European bike seat engineering. They remain unconvinced. Some have even tried to poke Snugglepunk awake on the journey back from nursery (he has never once stayed awake for the whole thing).

There's one straight big long road from our house to Snugglepunk's nursery. We didn't cycle on that though because bicycles are banned from this road, for good reason. Chinese buses were the whole reason we were cycling in the first place because they are death-traps and the bus drivers are, without exception, angry lunatics who will plough into anything that crosses their path and enjoy randomly braking for no particular reason.

So, we had to make our way to nursery through a series of back streets, mostly cycling the wrong way down one-way streets. This is ok in Shanghai though. It would be foolish not to. My strategy was to hitch myself behind a slow-moving granny and just do what she did. Sometimes, the granny would do weird stuff like veer into oncoming traffic but, in these cases, I just made a judgement call.

Cars came at us from every direction, motorbikes laden with boxes careened out of driveways, scooters broke lights when we were crossing roads, people stepped off the pavement into our path right in front of us and at one point we seemed to be playing chicken with a flatbed truck. I kept my eyes open, my wits about me and I moved at the pace of a gently scampering cockroach.

Chinese traffic might seem crazy and dangerous - ok, it is a little bit crazy and dangerous - but there's a beauty in it too...something very reflective of Chinese society generally. Everyone is pulling out in front of other people, breaking lights, ignoring pedestrian crossings...but they won't hurt you (one hopes). They know you're there, they see you, they expect you. And if you cut them off, or pull out in front of them, or make them slam on their brakes, they don't get angry...they just shrug and get on with it. There is a kind of live and let live vibe on the roads.

It makes me think of a story I read a few years ago about a town somewhere that was getting rid of traffic lights and signs to make the roads less dangerous…and I think there’s something in that. In Shanghai, no one relies on a light to guarantee their safety or a sign to give them a right of way. Everyone is looking around, all the time, judging the safety risk, making calls…they’re just probably not doing it aloud like I do. I think it makes things safer generally. All surprise is no surprise! (This is a new phrase I’ve just coined and I’m going to use it liberally once I figure out what it means).

So, for a while, things were great. And then one morning, my bike wasn’t in the apartment bike garage (the one with a 24-hour guard outside and enough CCTV cameras to make a Sharon Stone movie). It had been stolen!

In fact, Mr Oh’s bike had gone missing a few weeks before but he didn’t get very far with our building in making a fuss, being stopped in his tracks by their claim that the CCTV footage “only went back 24 hours”. (Also he had left the bike unlocked and unattended for several days in the garage, feeling safe in the knowledge that no one in China would have any compunction to steal a bike with a frame they’d need a ladder to get on to).

Well, one bike gone could be chalked up to carelessness, but this was two bikes in a month! So I looked around and started shouting at the first person I saw.

No one else’s bikes had been stolen. Only ours, both of ours. I demanded to see the CCTV footage. They refused. I went down to the lobby every hour and shouted at whoever I saw there. I was just angry…and shouting felt good. I didn’t think it would make my bike come back. I banged on the security room door and asked to look at their cameras (ok, I knocked politely but they still refused to tell me anything).

But something happened, it seemed my shouting was working. They asked me to write down the value of our bikes, both of them. And then a few days later I was presented with a letter of apology and, in a very Chinese way, an envelope stuffed with money. I asked if they had seen who stole my bike on the CCTV footage. They said they had. I asked if they knew who it was. They looked to the side, giggled nervously and said “a stranger”.

I looked at the pile of money in my hand. I knew they knew more than they were saying. Something wasn’t right - I knew they wanted me to stop shouting and asking questions. I was being bought off. I was surprisingly ok with that.

I toddled off and bought a new bike. It’s orange and while I really wish my bike hadn’t been stolen in the first place…the best way to get over an old bike is to find a new one.





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Signs That You're An Expat In China

road
(...on the off-chance you hadn’t noticed)

1.  You need to turn on an invisibility cloak (VPN) when attempting to access the internet.  The internet then thinks you're in Wisconsin and gives you all prices in dollars.

2. You are counted among the 0.001% of iPhone users who actually use Apple Maps over Google Maps because Google and China are fighting about something.  You wish they'd make up.  

3. You paid €15,000 to have your baby in an international hospital.  You were slightly disappointed when the baby did not arrive encrusted in diamonds.

4. You wash a carrot four times, after peeling it and before cooking it.  You still spend much of dinner-time thinking the carrot might be toxic.  

5. You have been asked by total strangers how much your rent is.  Sign that you've lived in China too long:  you tell them.  

6. You always put socks on your baby...even when it's 30 degrees outside.  Because listening to the Chinese grannies telling you your baby's feet are cold is just - so - not - worth - it.  

7. Everything you buy is imported, even though it's made in China.  

8. You hide your stroller behind a tree when trying to hail a taxi because you know they won't stop otherwise.
 
9. You use your umbrella mainly to take angry swipes at cars that almost run you down.  

10. You see the Avocado Lady more often than you see your husband.  

11. Your 3 year old has a heightened sense of danger.  You cannot decide whether this is a good thing or not.  

12. While you insisted on Swedish rear-facing carseats for your children when you lived in Europe...now you just hold them on your lap as your rickety taxi careens through downtown traffic and you slide back and forth along the slightly slimey back seat.  You pretend you're ok with this but inside you're weeping.  

13. You get extremely excited whenever a taxi has seatbelts.  The excitement dissipates after you touch them.  Thankfully, you always carry hand sanitizer.

14. When outside your apartment, 90% of what you say to your children is 'DON'T TOUCH THAT!'.  

15. You have to take out a bank loan to buy cheese.

16. You make your own yoghurt.  All your friends make their own yoghurt.  You talk about yoghurt a lot.

17. The most expensive things in your apartment are the air purifiers.

18. WeChat is your most utilized app.  Facebook is mafan (see no. 20) and Whatsapp is nowt but a poor man’s WeChat.

19. You think the lead levels of your bath water are an acceptable conversation topic for a dinner party.  The other people at the dinner party think so too.

20. Your English has become infiltrated by a smattering of Chinese.  

Examples:

- I'm not making dinner tonight - too mafan (troublesome).  We're all having toast.

- Me (to Little A): Stop giving me mafan and get into the bath.
 
- Little A:  The chongzis (insect) are biting me!
- Me:  Well get over here and put on some wenxiang (insect repellent) then.
 
- Me:  We're going outside now to play with your pengyous (friend).
- Little A:  Mei you pengyous - no one's outside yet.  

- Me:  I need Jiu (alcohol)
- Mr Oh: What kind of Jiu do you need?  
- Me: Eh...Putao Jiu (wine), Pi Jiu (beer), Bai Jiu (Baijiu)…any kind of Jiu really. Not fussy.



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The "School Trip"

flower
1. I know I swore I'd never write about anything pertaining to goldfish again but, as I'm discovering, goldfish are to young children what fixie bikes are to hipsters.  
2.  A flurry of white feathers just fluttered down outside my living room window.  If I lived in a different country, I might investigate but as I live in China, I think it's best not to.  Also, set to the background sound of the soprano practising her aria across the road in the Shanghai Conservatory of Music...the moment was quite dramatic, and weird.  

So, last week I received an email from Little A's school informing me of the upcoming school trip and inviting me to attend.  As is normal with Little A's school, the information provided was minimal.  They would be going somewhere with "rollercoasters, water-rafting, gold-fishing and vegetable-picking".  The thought of a clutch of 3-year-olds on rollercoasters and rafts in China (the 'in China' bit is important) set my A-dar blasting. (A-dar is the implant in my head that senses when Little A should not be doing something).  

The school, while encouraging parents to go, weren't too happy about me bringing Snugglepunk along as well.  They suggested I leave him at home (strapped into his highchair for the day with a supply of rice crackers perhaps?) and told me that it was too dangerous for a 1 year old (but not apparently for 3 year olds who are famous for being significantly more mature and world-wise than 1 year olds).   It's not that I particularly fancied the idea of juggling two small children for the day, one of whom likes eating rubbish and the other who likes picking sticks off the ground and swishing them around in the faces of other young children while shouting 'I'm a pirate, ARGGGHHH...me hearties".   But,  I didn't want Little A to miss out on whatever it was that was happening and I certainly was not going to let him go under the supervision of the school which is well-meaning but generally chaotic and disorganised.  

So, yesterday Little A, Snugglepunk and I set off on the school trip with two bags, one pram, two slings, two packets of baby wipes and about 300 rice cakes.  It is impossible to have too many rice cakes.  

Little A goes to an "international" school but it seems to be 90% Chinese.   It's also supposed to be bilingual but I think it's bilingual in the way that all the Chinese kids speak Chinese and all the English speaking kids speak English and I don't sense a whole load of crossover.  Little A never speaks Chinese in front of me so I’m never too clear how much he actually speaks and understands…more than me probably.

We took a tour bus an hour north of Shanghai which wasn't actually an hour north of Shanghai at all because it was still Shanghai...so perhaps better to say an hour north of my Shanghai.  I had very little idea of what kind of place we were visiting, so at least my expectations were low.  I had been on enough school trips with Little A to know that we needed to pack a lot of food.  The school provided Little A with a "packed lunch" consisting rather randomly of two bottles of water, a banana, four mini "croissants" (i.e. bread rolls shaped like croissants) and two bread rolls shaped like bread rolls.  I seem to use an inordinate amount of "quotation marks" when writing about China - maybe because things are often claimed to be things that we later find out are not the things they claim to be at all - if you get me.   Little A and Snugglepunk had polished off the bread roll extravaganza before we even arrived so it's just as well I had also packed three tupperware boxes of sausage pasta, apples, juice and the 300 rice cakes.  Small boys are hungry - I know this from experience.

We arrived at what seemed to be some kind of park.  It was immediately clear that it was a very Chinese destination i.e. it was packed full of people and the bins were overflowing at 10am.  The first mass activity of the day was a trip to the toilet (this is, after all, a class full of 3 year olds).  The toilet was a ceramic trench with small dividers along the wall.  There was no flushing, no water, no doors, no toilet paper.  I've spent time in China so I was vaguely ok with this and knew that it was best not to dwell on it, not to breathe and not to touch anything.   I'm seasoned at the way of the squat trench.  Little A however was having none of it and refused to step near the trench.  "I don't want to fall in", he said wisely and went outside to find a less offensive tree upon which to relieve himself.  I made a mental note not to drink water again for the rest of the day.  

The whole thing was a bit mental.  There was a lady with a microphone and whistle whose job appeared to be to corral us like cattle.  She also had a faded red flag raised high in the air that we were supposed to follow through the crowds of people and children all in their own groups, with their own red flags that looked entirely identical to our red flag.   Every time we weren't doing what we should, she would start piping on her whistle and rabbiting down the microphone in Chinese.  She was Captain Von Trapp in the squat body of a middle-aged Chinese tour guide, with a voice like a round-saw cutting metal.   

The first "activity" (I'm starting to think I should just put quotation marks around the whole entry), was the "playground"  which was, in fact a dated and decrepit amusement park.  We had a jolly little ride on a squeaky train before Little A spotted a large swinging pirate ship and demanded that we go on it.  I looked at the swarming mass of Chinese tweens pushing and clambering to get on the ride, which looked a bit rusty and didn't appear to have restraints and tried to jolly him off in the other direction.  The only other rides were a spinning one with water guns and bumper cars.  Little A took one look at the cars and said "I wanna drive car!".  I thought "Well, that's not possible, he's only 3...surely he wouldn't be allowed on the bumper cars" but, you know, it's China so I don't know why I thought that, of course 3 year olds can go on the bumper cars!  In fact, it turns out that 1 year olds are also allowed on them but some maternal instinct at the back of my spine must have kicked in because I decided that Snugglepunk was a tad too young to be bashed around in an electrified vehicle.  My Chinese friend Kitty offered to take Aodhan on the bumper cars.  While he was at first delighted, his joy turned to horror as he realised that the cars were crashing into each other and he started to get panicked.  Kitty, however, managed to drive around the little bumper car arena in smooth circles avoiding all other cars and people while Little A sat frozen in terror beside her.  

Thankfully, activity 1 was now over.  Activity 2 was a "boat" ride.  The "boat" was a series of bamboo poles tied together with benches strapped on top.  The "life jackets" were pieces of orange material stuffed with something that may or may not have been buoyant.  Apparently they also have no problem with one year olds on floating bamboo rafts although they had neither child nor infant versions of the possibly-though-not-necessarily-buoyant "life-jackets".  Not wanting to be the neurotic foreigner who wouldn't participate, I gingerly stepped onto the raft clutching my two children, and chose a bench towards the back.  Just after I got on, about 6 other families pushed their way onto our raft, including one that wedged themselves onto our bench.  The gondolier-man shouted "too heavy!" so two more men jumped on.  He shouted "too heavy!" again.  I was about to volunteer to get off as the raft started listing precariously to one side and then, Tour Guide Von Trapp herself hopped on, shouted at the man with the pole and off we lurched into the middle of a lake of unknown depth.  I looked down at the bamboo poles that separated us from the water and saw that they were now submerged and water was starting to pool around my shoes.    If I had a picture of my face at that moment, I am entirely sure it would have been ashen.   It's not that I can't swim, I can swim just fine, but the two little boys can't swim and didn't have life jackets, and the raft was slightly submerged with one side rising up out of the water.  I was the only person concerned, apparently, as everyone else was chattering away and Tour Guide Von Trapp blew down on her whistle in a moment of, what seemed from my panic station at the back, to be exuberance and joy.  Snugglepunk started to squeal and try to wriggle out of my arms.  I forced a smile and looked down at Little A beside me.  With my best jolly voice I said, "Isn't this fun?  A boat!".  He looked up weakly and said, "I want to get off".   I nodded, gripped his hand and started trying to remember what I had learned in those two lifesaving classes I did when I was 14.  Thankfully, it was a short boat ride.

Swiftly moving on to Activity 3...fishing.  Sorry, "fishing".  Fishing consisted of a series of large plastic tubs filled with water and terrified goldfish around which dozens of crazed children with nets were wedged, frantically trying to, ehm, fish.   When a fish was caught, it was squeezed into a container of some kind, usually a waterbottle the diameter of which was less than the diameter of the fish itself.  Sometimes they didn't bother adding water - it was grim. For proof - see picture below.  I'm not big into animal welfare but even I was slightly horrified.  Even so, I gave Little A a net, squashed him in between some older kids and let him loose, knowing that the freaked out fish were all huddled together in the centre of the tub, beyond the reach of his little arms.  He caught nothing.   Eventually, Tour Guide Von Trapp got on the whistle again and we all assembled under her frayed red flag.  Little A looked around...all the other children had goldfish.  He looked at me plaintively, "Where's my fish?", he wailed. And in a very Augustus Gloop fashion, he threw a net at me, pointed to the tubs and screamed "GET ME A FISH.  NOW!".  My little tyrant - so cute.  
 
Normally, I would deal with this like a good parent, gently talk to him about his tone and help him deal with and understand his emotions.  But I had been in that godforsaken park for 3 hours, I was sweating, Snugglepunk was screeching for food, i had at least 7 mosquito bites and all my good-parent-motivation was drowned in the lake.  I picked up the net and took myself over to the fish tub.  After a minute of failed fishing, I gave up.  The net was too small, the children were pushing me and the fish were wiley.  Unable to face the prospect of Little A's inevitable meltdown and the ensuing chaos, I looked desperately around for a solution. Kitty pointed to a man with a barrell.  I gave the man 20 kuai (€3) and he gave me a little fish box with a handle and there were 7 little fish inside!  A failure for parenting, perhaps, but a triumphant win for my afternoon sanity.  Predictably, Little A was bored of carrying the fish approximately 3 minutes later so I was left to juggle baby in sling, fish in hand, buggy in other hand and small child trailing behind me whining that he wanted to go home.  

Activity 4 was "peanut picking".  Despite the fact that I had three Epi-pens in my bag, I did not feel like bringing my nut-allergic baby "peanut picking", quotations marks or not.  Instead I spent 45 minutes milling around the rubbish strewn entrance, waiting for the group to finish the final activity and watching my children lick the railings.  

Eventually it was over and we were back on the bus.  Some parents had to take another bathroom break before we got back on the bus.  It had been 4 hours since we had last been to the bathroom but I was holding it in.  Kitty came back looking shell-shocked. She didn't want to speak about it.  And she's Chinese - that's saying something.  

On the bus, Little A turned to me and said. “I had a great time”. Confused I asked, “Did you like the bumper cars?”. “No.”, he said, “They were dangerous”. “Ok, did you like the boat?”, I asked. “No”, he said, “That was dangerous”.

“So, what did you like?”, I asked again. “Mummy came”, he said, before falling asleep against the window. Sniff.

So now we have our four fish, plus the seven from the school trip, two of whom are already dead.  Current fish count: 9.  

Likelihood that I'll never mention fish again in my blog: low.  

fc




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The Last Post I'll Ever Write About Goldfish

fush
I'm just going to get the bad news out of the way at the beginning...Orange and Other Orange are dead.  They were as happy as two fish in a giant blue-lit filtered tank when we left for the summer.  Mr Oh also did a stellar job at remembering to feed them occasionally when he was in Shanghai on his own.  When he was due to join us in Ireland, he brought the fish into his office where they died.  I don't blame them.  Offices are no place for fish (or people really).  Whenever I used to go into the office every day, sometimes I felt a bit green around the gills too.  I didn't die though...I just had a string of children, moved to Shanghai and refused to go back.  If only that option were available to pet goldfish.

Orange died first.  I didn't ask how but I know that he made at least one attempt at fish suicide before his eventual demise.  Other Orange did make it back to us at the end of the summer, but he didn't look great and it was clear that his time on earth was limited.  Little A was delighted to be reunited with Other Orange and did ask me a few times where Orange was (actually he calls all fish that are not the one he is looking at at that particular moment 'Other Orange').  I dealt with this skillfully by looking at the ceiling and saying something reassuring like "Oh, you know...here and there..". 

Then one morning, Other Orange was gone too.  Mr Oh got up early and disposed of his body.  That morning, Little A stood on his small giraffe stool, staring into the empty bowl from a variety of angles, as if Other Orange might be wedged under a pebble.  "Where has Orange gone?", he asked (still flexible with the goldfish names).  I took an executive decision that this would be a good time to discuss death with the 3-year-old.  I think the clearer and more forthright we are about these issues the better.  I looked Little A in the eye and I said, "Other Orange died".   Little A looked at me for a long time with what I recognised as his thinking-hard-face (eyebrows scrunched, mouth slightly open, head cocked slightly to one side).   I stood panicked in front of him - a million thoughts and regrets running through my head.  Do we discuss heaven?  Should I tell him that Daddy threw Orange in the black bin out the back?  What if he cries?   What if I cry?  What have I done?  Can I run away now?  etc etc.  

Little A looked at me and said "Where did Orange dive to?".   A big wave of relief washed over me.  The universe was giving me a life raft and I was going to take it.  "Ehm...the ocean",  I said with my best knowledgable look (which is not be confused with my making-it-up-as-I-go-along-look, to which it bears a startling similarity).  "Like Nemo?", Little A asked.  "Yes", I responded, "Just like Nemo."  

"Oh", Little A said, apparently satisfied.  "Orange has gone to play with Nemo and Nemo's Daddy in the ocean".   I nodded persuasively.  

"I want to buy a new fish",  Little A announced.  I was still nodding.  

That afternoon, I set off across Shanghai with Snugglepunk, Little A and Ayi on a fish buying expedition.  I had to buy more fish before Little A starting poking holes in my ocean diving story.  The place one buys goldfish in this part of Shanghai is the Flower, Bird, Fish and Cockroach market.  I don't think that's its official name, but it should be.  It's an airless, windowless maze of tiny ramshackle stalls heaving with various things that move and swim and squelch and slither.  The floor is slimey and it's best not to look down generally.  Also best not to wear flip-flops but I'll know that for next time.  With Snugglepunk on my hip and clutching Little A's hand in a vice-like grip to stop him running off to pet an iguana, we inched our way along the narrow alleys - Ayi leading the way, Little A trying to break free from me and me trying not to think about what just touched my foot.  Snugglepunk was sitting happily aloft having a good look around and saying 'F-f-f-f' every time he saw a fish, which was every half a second.  

Once we located goldfish corner, Ayi turned to me and said "No talking".   I nodded and whispered "get 4 fish".  Ayi then commenced to shout and point while I pleaded with Little A not to touch anything, not the floor, not the insects, not the slime covered fish tanks, not the birds, nothing.  All I wanted was to get out of there with a few fish and no microbes of mutated tropical disease clinging to my children.  We came home with 8 fish, 3 kg of gravel and big, pink plastic plant.   I'm still not sure about the microbes.

We didn’t really get very imaginative with the fish naming. One was called Orange, one called Little Orange, then there was Other Orange 1, Other Orange 2, Other Orange 3, Black Fish (who was not orange) and Burt Reynolds.

The fish have not fared terribly well.  One jumped out the first night.  I found his lifeless fish-corpse lying on the floor in front of the tank.  Mr Oh disposed of the body.  Another was found floating in the top of the tank several days later.  Mr Oh is a very good sport about his unsolicited role as fish undertaker.  Things seemed ok for a few weeks and then I noticed that the fish all seemed to be infected with some kind of fungus that causes their fins to rot and open sores to appear on their body.  I bought fish medicine but, alas, no amount of modern medicine could help those poor fish.  One more died last night and Mr Oh bludgeoned another to death this morning to put him out of his misery.  We're down to four fish and one of them has an ulcer on his head so I imagine he's next.    It's become a real problem because although Little A's counting skills are rudimentary (he just counts the fish every time he sees them so at one point he thought there were 23 fish in the tank which, incidentally, is as high as he can count),  even he will notice when we're down to three fish.  

I need to source disease-free fish in China.   I think online might be the answer.  I am certainly not going back to the cusp of creepy-crawlie hell that is the slime market.  I might try Taobao.  I didn't think live fish was the kind of thing you would be able to buy online and have delivered but then I remembered that this is China...everything can be bought online and delivered.  Even a live fox (see below, poor fox looks none too happy about finding itself in the online Chinese marketplace).  

I should really just abandon my dreams of having a fish-filled house and just stop buying fish but the boys love them...and i have the stupid tank now.   I promise I'm going to stop writing about goldfish soon.  


Pasted Graphic


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The Thing That Broke My Heart

bbeach

I started writing my blog after the summer hiatus at the start of September.  For me, my blog has always been a break from reality.  No matter what's going on in the world or in my own life, I can always see the funny side of day-to-day life.  For the first time in my life, I'm finding it hard to write about my own life without mentioning an issue which occupies much of my waking and sleeping thoughts...without feeling like it's slightly obscene that I might even make light of a daily situation while there is so much pain around us.  

I'm also aware that, every minute of our lives, various horrors of which we are unaware are taking place across the globe.  But this is one of which we are partially aware and I, for one, cannot get it out of my head....the situation of refugees from Syria (in particular, but not exclusively) trying to enter Europe.  

When I was young and as idealistic as I was ever likely to be, I used to say that there was no such thing as an 'economic migrant', which was a popular phrase at the time.  I was able, at that age, to imagine what it would feel like to uproot your whole family and move, without finance or security, to an entirely strange country, hoping for a better life.  I had enormous respect for their bravery.  I thought that the term 'economic migrant' did them an injustice, depicting them as vultures who preyed upon the taxes of others as opposed to human beings in need.  

But somehow, over time, as I got older, I got used to closing my eyes, because it was easier...because I found looking too painful.  I still find looking too painful.  There's a man who sits on the side of the road near my home in Shanghai...he sits with a baby in a type of pram, who always seems to be screaming.  I know the baby is deformed in some way...but I can't look...I've never looked so I don't know what's wrong with the baby. If I look, I know I'll be haunted by the image for weeks, maybe months or years.  If I look, I'll give them all the money in my wallet, and more.   But I'd be happy to do that if I thought that child would get the money...but I've seen the beggar-bosses swoop down and take the earnings of maimed children so many times in the past... I don't want to feed into it...but I want to help...but I know that, as I foreigner, I can't.  It's paralyzing and horrific and the only thing I seem to be able to do is look away and burn with shame.  

So, when I read and see the stories of families struggling to make their way to the EU and dying in the process, my instinct is to let it run over me...as if I were waterproof...as if it didn't exist...because I know that I can't actually process that kind of horror.  I've gotten so accustomed to letting news stories wash over me while accepting only a brief dash of outrage or pathos..enough to make me feel human, like I'm an active and involved citizen-person...before I move on with my life.  

But now - and maybe shockingly, only now - I can't get past it.  I imagine my baby boys crying for me if I were taken from them.  I imagine them having to crawl through barbed wire.  I imagine them suffocating in the back of freight lorries.  I imagine their small, pale bodies washing up on beaches.  

It might sound terribly dramatic - and I wish so very much that this were not the reality for so many families right now - but that would be a different level of delusion entirely.

As a mother, I know, for a fact, that you do not take your children on broke-down boat heading for Europe unless the alternative is worse than a fairly strong chance of death.  I cannot imagine having to make that decision, to take that step.  I try to imagine what must have lain behind them to make any human take that risk...I can't.    

And yet, despite their bravery, despite the horrors that drove them to us...we turn away.  I turn away.  It's something for governments to deal with, I can't do anything.  

I do understand the pressures of migration.  I do understand the fine balance.  I do understand the needs of societies to instill continuity and security. I do understand the pressure on public services. 

I know it's going to be hard but I am going to look.  All those images I make my eyes blur over because I know they're going to upset me, I'm going to look at them.  I have no answers.  I have no magical solution.  But, for me, the first step is just to look and not turn away.  

These people are people.  They're my sons, my babies.  They're me. 

[At the end of this, I still can’t tell you about the photo that broke my heart. And I can’t post it. Because I still can’t look at it. Even though I said I would look, I still can’t look for very long]
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What I Did Last Summer

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And...we're back!    We've all returned to Shanghai - Little A has returned to school - I've returned to checking the air quality every hour,  retching on the street (the sound of spitting does it to me) and screaming "Don't touch that!" at least five times an hour.  Summer is officially over! 

When I first arrived here, I heard about the total mass exodus of expats from Shanghai during the summer.  If you're foreign, have children and are able to - you leave - for months if you can.  It all sounds a bit decadent at first but after I did Summer 2014 in Shanghai, I swore never again.  It's 40 degrees, 100% humidity, the pollution sticks to the sweat in your hair, there are still no parks, the schools are closed, everyone is gone. In summer, the Chinese to French person ratio in my neighborhood skyrockets and the sock-less Vespa riders disappear from the roads. So, this year, we left too.  

The prospect of two months of clean air made me happy to unprecedented proportions.  So much so that I was willing to do that journey again - you know the day-time one that I do on my own with the two boys that lasts 13 hours and then the Heathrow transfer and then another hour long flight?  Yeah, that one.   Mr Oh looked a bit terrified for me as he waved goodbye to us at the airport.   He was following us a month later.  No, I didn't feel sorry for him.  He had a month of partying, fabulous dinners, lie-ins and lazy weekends to look forward to.  I had a month of laundry, and solo-parenting ahead of me, plus that awful journey.   In reality, he appeared to do rather little partying and spent his weekends sitting forlornly on the sofa playing his guitar into the middle-distance.  

And the journey was fine.  Once you accept that you will spent 13 hours being bitten and crawled upon by a 10 month old, wrangling three people into a dirty plane toilet at regular intervals, bribing an almost 3 year old with snacks and endless TV and trying to stifle the sobs of boredom and frustration that are welling up inside you like a tidal wave of volcanic emotion.  Once you make your peace with that - it’s totally doable.  It also makes you feel like a superhero (only when it's over though, during the actual journey you will feel like a human dishcloth - damp with sweat, fear, breastmilk and the various bodily fluids of your small children).   

If anyone would like further information on flying solo with young kids, please see my earlier post
here.  

We had an amazing two months in Dublin, London and the south of France.  Snugglepunk crawled on grass for the first time ever.  Little A dug potatoes out of the garden and learned that not all dirt contains nuclear waste.   We went for walks, ran over sand dunes, swam in the sea (France), paddled in the sea until our feet got headaches (Ireland), climbed walls, visited castles and playgrounds, ate food that was high-quality and healthy (Percy Pigs are made from real fruit juice) and did all the things that we can't do in China.  We saw some friends - not as many as we would have liked but Snugglepunk isn't a fan of the car, much like his brother before him (
see previous post on baby car-travel trauma).  

I even became a Godmother for the first time (Hiya Baby T!) which was amazing.  Our boys don't have a lot of experience in churches (they are, however, incredibly well behaved in Buddhist temples).  After Baby T's christening, Little A ran up to me, pointed at the altar and said "I want to go up there and sing Let It Go".  I said "Let's go light some candles for your great-grandmothers instead who are, at this moment, turning in their graves".  Little A said "Ok, that sounds fun."  He lit six candles and promptly blew them all out.  I had to hold my hand over his mouth as he started to sing Happy Birthday to the lady statue.  I looked over at Little A's own Godmother and sighed...she's got her work cut out for her.  

Mr Oh joined us in London and we all spend the next 3 weeks jetting around Europe consuming our body weight in ice-cream and raw meat.  We were able to travel back together to China although I noted that Mr Oh brought his book with him on the plane which I thought was hilarious. 

So 7 weeks later, here we are.  Back again.  On return, we spent 7 full days tortured by jet-lag and children who tag-teamed night time waking so that I never got any sleep.  Just when I thought they’d fetch a good price on Taobao, they all started sleeping again and I got bronchitis.  Ah China bronchitis...it's good to be home. 

Footnote: The title photo appears courtesy of the London Massive (i.e. my bro and sister-in-law). It’s not really courtesy of them because I haven’t asked them if I can use it yet. In fact, I only realized they probably took the photo when I noticed that it appeared strangely unwarped - which is unheard of in any panoramic iPhone shot that either me or Mr Oh have attempted. Our panoramas look like a bad dream. The London Massive, however, know how to work their iPhones - this is how we know it was them.

The photo itself was taken at Uisneach, the sacred and mythological centre of Ireland. We spent a morning on this hill looking at bulls and sacrificing our hangovers to the ancient gods of Ireland. (The hangovers were courtesy of my cousin Jude and her new husband Trevor who had the most amazing wedding in a field…as you do).
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