Christmas 2013

Christmas is over! Maybe not officially, but it’s over in my head. Mr Oh has gone back to work. Little A has gone back to playschool. I think he’s quite relieved. He was starting to think that he was kept at home as punishment for something. It was hard work trying to keep him entertained last week. Every day, he needs to be taken out to ‘burn off the coal’, as Mr Oh calls it. Burning off the coal is not a straightforward affair in a city with radioactive pollution levels, no green spaces and a set of pavements that double as a freeway for motorbikes.

Speaking of motorbikes on pavements, my pet hate of the week is when you’re walking along the pavement, as is your right, and a motorbike zooms up behind you and beeps aggressively until you get out of its way. I am sometimes tempted to push these people off their motorbikes. In my head, I do it all the time. I give the obnoxious motorbike rider a solid sideways shove and he goes tumbling to the ground where he immediately repents for being an ass in the first place. In reality, it would be unlikely to pan out this way. In reality, the motorbike rider would get up and beat me with an iron bar. It’s not worth being self-righteous - you might end up with a black eye and a few cracked ribs. That said, I’ve never experienced any overt violence here although it’s probably mostly because I don’t act on my daydreams of attacking passing motorists.

Enough about my pet hates, my pet like of the week is the way China has embraced Christmas thereby facilitating me to decorate my home in a manner befitting the grotto of an overzealous elf. I was able to source organized bunches of festive greenery with strategically located candles (I have no idea what the official name for these things might be - “Christmas candle shrub”?). I was also able to source a real Christmas tree - although being a perishable item with a small market base in a Godless country it was not the most cost effective of my financial transactions. Some chancer up in the flower market was trying to get us to pay €180 for a tree. Mr Oh refused to even negotiate with him and almost abandoned the idea of buying a tree altogether until I accused him of trying to steal Christmas from me with his Grinchy ways. Finally we found one that did not cost €180 but still cost more than I am willing to admit in public (or private).

There are two peculiar qualities about Chinese Christmas trees.
1. They are very spiky. So spiky, in fact, that Mr Oh had to wear protective gloves while decorating the tree - an endeavor that took him over two hours to complete due as much to the constant pricking of his hands and arms as his Christmas tree OCD. Christmas tree OCD is a disease of the mind which prevents you from walking away from a tree decorating session until everything is symmetrical. This condition is aggravated by the tree itself being lopsided.
2. They come with friends. About an hour after our Christmas tree was delivered, I heard silence in the living room. Always suspicious of silence, I went in to find Little A on his hands and knees crawling around my silk rug (the same one he had poo’d on several months earlier) cavorting with a frog. Little A and the frog appeared to have struck up a firm friendship, one that I was afraid would end up with the frog in Little A’s mouth. I did what every modern woman would do. I put a bucket over the frog and waited for my husband to come home and deal with it.

The tree looked pretty in the end. Little A broke three baubles in the first ten minutes prompting me to relocate all the dangly things to the top half of the tree, which threw Mr Oh’s tree OCD into a tailspin but I promised that he can have a symmetrically decorated tree again when Little A moves out or stops wanting to eat broken glass, whichever comes first.

Santa did not come to our house because Little A does not know who Santa is. We gave him presents in the weeks before and, on the day itself, he had plenty of wrapping paper to fling at the ceiling which, it seems, was the best present of all. Ayi, our ayi, was totally perplexed by the whole affair. Her horror that we had brought a molting tree into the house was compounded by the fact that I told her how much we had paid for the dead specimen (actually, I didn’t tell her, she asked the man delivering it). Equally confusing for her were the crib figures on the mantelpiece, she kept picking up the baby Jesus and examining him, perhaps for signs that he was about to magically transform into Santa. For Christmas lunch, we went to a hotel with free flow champagne, all you can eat turkey and dancing Chinese ladies dressed like hookers…sorry, elves.

It was a good Christmas. My mother was made the arduous journey to Shanghai in mid-December to spend a festive week with us before jetting back to Ireland in time for Christmas. In her absence, my father had unilaterally taken the controversial decision to ask the butcher to take the legs off the turkey and de-bone them. She listened to his daily updates on the state of turkey with increasing alarm and had she not been afraid he would eventually ask the butcher to take all the meat off the turkey and turn it into mince for a turkey spaghetti, I think she could have been convinced to stay longer ;-)

Thankfully, Mr Oh’s brother - DJ Bubbles (so named for his penchant for music without words or apparent melody) - came over from Tokyo to spend Christmas with us. He proved to be most excellent at ‘burning off the coal’ and spent many hours teaching Little A important life lessons that seemed to involve jumping off furniture and disco dancing. He also proved to be proficient at burning off Mr. Oh’s coal and the two of them often disappeared into the lights of Shanghai after I had retired for the evening. Unfortunately, one of us had to stay and look after Little A. Also, I know that I cannot go drinking with DJ Bubbles. He’s 24, he has more coal than Inner Mongolia and he does not appear to need sleep. I let Mr Oh take the hit for the family.

Culture Shock

PA285676 - Version 2
Our ayi, Ayi, has been with us for about two months now and, despite my initial reservations, it’s going swimmingly. She’s as mad as a box of frogs, though, and stomps around the house with Little A - the two of them singing loud, tuneless la-la-la songs together in unison. Sometimes, I swear, they do harmonies. They also have loud and ear piercing squabbles (I think the squabbling is mostly on her side as Little A’s only word is ‘dog’). As I sit in my study learning how to write ‘terracotta warriors’ in Chinese (honestly, the vocabulary in my textbook is so random sometimes) I can hear Ayi wail at Little A. This is followed by a thud as, I can only presume, his sippy cup hits either a) the wall or b) her head. They’re both screaming at this stage. I can’t go out and check on what’s happening because she has banned me from coming out of my study after he wakes up from his nap. I had this idea that I could pop in and out of my study throughout the afternoon bestowing kisses on Little A and sweeping into his room for a guerrilla play session before retreating back to my books. Sadly, toddlers don’t work like that and Little A is happiest if he doesn’t catch sight of me until I’m ready to give him my full focus for the rest of the day.

For the last month, I’ve been studying Chinese full-time. Four hours of classes in the morning and another 3-4 hours of study in the afternoons. It’s intense but I really love it and I can feel my Chinese improving by the day. In the beginning, Ayi and I spoke a mix of Chinese and English. Now, we speak 95% in Chinese. Ayi has become like my China-living-guru. Every day I proudly show her something that I’ve managed to buy in China - dried apricots from the Uighur vendors that come into town occasionally, a kilo of tangerines, a knock-off Gap jumper, a Christmas tree - normally when I tell her how much I paid for the item in question she starts shaking her head slowly. “No good” she says and tells me how much I should have paid for it (which is usually about half of what I did). Every once in a while she gives a satisfactory nod and tells me that my product is ‘hao tejia’ (a good deal). Once I bought a bag of raisins that were so ‘hao tejia’ that she asked me to buy one for her too. I was extremely proud of my bargain hunting prowess which is to the Chinese what barefoot wildebeest stalking is to the Masai. These special moments are infrequent but deeply satisfying.

While we have been getting on well, that is not to say that the new arrangement has not required a bit of adjustment and a recalibration of cultural expectations. Ayi, like most Chinese, likes a good nap. The first time I saw her lying prone on our sofa wrapped up in my pure wool Foxford blanket with a cushion over her face, I was quite taken aback. If I am totally honest, I was a little bit indignant. Why is she sleeping in my living room in the middle of the day? How is this ok? In China, though, it’s perfectly acceptable to sleep anywhere. Little A was napping, she had already ironed all Mr Oh’s shirts and made enough dumplings to feed all twelve of the people she clearly thinks live in our house - so why shouldn’t she catch forty winks? I could actually find no valid reason for my objection to her siesta other than the fact that it’s just not the kind of thing we do. Fortunately, I don’t know how to say that in Chinese. Now I’ve become accustomed to her gently snoring presence in my living room and no longer find it quite as bizarre as I once did.

I thought that when I got used to the midday napping that I could no longer be thrown by Ayi’s bizarre cultural habits. Not so. I remember the day she came in to me as I was reading a very boring text describing what happens in a teahouse in Guangdong (not much, in case you were wondering) and told me that, from that day forth, she would be showering in the afternoon…in our shower. I was truly baffled and I think the first thing I said was ‘Why?’. She seemed slightly put out by my questioning of her motives and said “because I need to change clothes”. This hardly clarified matters for me and I stared aghast at her as she picked a towel out of my linen cupboard, asked me to buy more shampoo and toddled off for a refreshing 2pm hose-down. I was actually, at that moment, prepared to tell her that I didn’t feel she was a ‘good fit for our family’ (this is the vocabulary of cross-cultural domestic employment). Again, I wasn’t quite sure what it was about her showering that really annoyed me. It wasn’t that she was slacking in her work otherwise. It wasn’t that I felt she was taking advantage of us. It just felt so very inappropriate - like a violation of our boundaries, our privacy. For me, it was like she had told me that she was going to start wearing my socks. Actually, she was using my flip flops for her showers so it really was like she was wearing my socks.

After raising this issue with various foreign friends and finding their response to be unanimously a kind of blasé “Oh yeah, that’s normal” I slowly became less freaked out by the showering. Apparently Chinese homes often don’t have very comfortable showers in the winter. They may not have hot water or at least not very hot water. Our bathroom is so badly insulated and baltic that I reckon Ayi’s own shower must be really awful for her to resort to seeking comfort in, what I think, is a little mini igloo with its own polar wind tunnel. Once I established the existence of a vaguely genuine reason that she may prefer to shower in our place and further discovered that it’s quite common and she’s not just taking the piss, I’ve become okay with it. I’m not great with it - I still think it’s weird and I’m not 100% comfortable but I’m willing to live with it. She makes really good dumplings, Little A likes her and she shouts at repairmen on my behalf (she instructs me to stand menacingly at her side looking displeased while she berates them). I’ve hidden my flip flops under the bed though - that really is like wearing my socks and I haven’t been in China long enough to be okay with that.

[By the way, in case anyone was wondering, the air quality is no longer immediately and enormously hazardous and has gone back to being just plain old bad. We’re very relieved!]

Don't Panic

The image above shows the view from the back of our apartment ten minutes ago. Usually you can see skyscrapers too. Presumably they’re still there and you just can’t see them through the ‘fog’. Except it’s not fog, or mist or cloud. It’s airborne poison. For the last three days, Shanghai has been experiencing the worst air pollution on record. Today the Air Quality in Shanghai reached the top of the scale and just kept on going.

A few months ago, I jovially penned a little post about the air quality bemoaning the fact that the Air Quality Index (AQI) in Shanghai frequently reached 150 but thankful that it didn’t go to 200 too often. I posted this guide:


I’ve always been conscious that pollution is an issue in Shanghai, especially for children. I generally don’t let Little A play outside when it gets over 150. At 200, I definitely keep him indoors. I’ve never seen it go over 220 before this week. As of the last hour, it’s just hit 509 - that’s quite literally off the scale. My poor little air monitoring app is so bewildered by the fact that the reading is ‘beyond index’ that it is telling me the air quality is ‘good’ (with a slightly insane looking smiley face beside it).


But the air isn’t good - it’s tastes of the inside of an exhaust pipe and it burns when you breathe. I’ve never seen anything like it (but then again, I don’t live in Beijing where this is, sadly, an all too common experience). It’s hard to get a sense of what severe pollution is like if you’ve never experienced it but I can give you some idea of the scale of this particular crisis event.

I had a look at some air quality readings from around the world this morning:
New York 11
Paris 49
Singapore 20
Beijing 185
Shanghai 509

I would have tried to get more readings for more heavily populated cities like Delhi and Rio de Janeiro which are likely to have higher readings (but not this high) but couldn’t find them on the internet.

There’s not a lot we can do except hope for a strong gust of wind to blow it into someone else’s airspace. We have two air purifiers running in the apartment at the moment but we need at least three more to make sure the whole apartment is covered. We also have filtered masks which I bought last week. When I was putting in the order, Mr Oh said he didn’t want me to buy him one. I said I’d just buy one so that we have it and he told me not to bother because he wouldn’t wear it. Stupidly, I listened to him. It was a slightly sheepish husband who went off to work this morning in a black mask dotted with pink hearts that he had to borrow from his wife. Little A refuses to wear his and screams whenever it’s produced. He’s not allowed to leave the apartment. He’s lucky I don’t chain him to the air purifier.

The sad thing is that most Chinese people don’t have air purifiers. Most, in fact, don’t even realise the extent of the danger. When discussing the pollution with my Chinese teacher - who is generally an intelligent and worldly lady - she told me that air pollution is a real problem for foreigners because we’re not used to it. My Danish classmate and I were stunned into silence. We wanted to object and tell her that just because you’re used to air pollution doesn’t mean it’s not just as damaging. We wanted to be righteous and right (well, I did anyway). But our teacher quietly said - this is where Chinese people live, we can’t go anywhere. Like many Chinese, she doesn’t want to hear about the dangers of air pollution because she can’t do anything about it. She can’t move. She can’t keep her child in a purified room all day - local schools don’t have air purifiers and, at about €2,000 per unit, not many Chinese homes can afford them. Some Chinese people wear masks but most of the masks don’t have filters and therefore don’t provide any protection.

Pollution is played down in the media. It’s not ignored so much as mentioned in passing - in a factual sort of way e.g. “today the pollution is bad, maybe you shouldn’t jog”. There’s probably no point in sending 1.35 billion people into a blind panic unless you’re also coming to the table with a solution. It reminds me of the SARS outbreak in 2002. Until the Chinese media tells you to freak out, you don’t freak out, but once they give you that green light, you freak out big style.

What’s the point in scaring people - even when the threat is real? They haven’t even closed the schools though, I can’t understand that but, then again, if the kids aren’t in school, the parents often can’t go to work and that creates a whole other set of problems. They’re telling children and the elderly to stay indoors where possible but why would the air quality inside be better that outside? You can’t protect the indoors from the outdoors for more than a few days. I see Chinese children on the street (or at least I did when I was still venturing outside) and they’re playing in shop fronts out in the open air - there’s no where else for them to go. The scary thing is that we don’t really know yet how the air pollution will affect them in decades to come, those children who are breathing in toxic air continuously throughout the day, throughout their childhoods.

In the past, environmentalism for me has always been something vague and intangible. A little bit of recycling, some biodegradable washing powder, a touch of pontificating. And bitching about the EU - we all love bitching about the EU - with their annoying regulations and directives. But yesterday evening, when I realized that I don’t know when Little A will next step outdoors, when I could see pollution haze under the lights in the kitchen after we moved the air purifiers into the bedroom, when I couldn’t stand in the air outside our back door for more than ten seconds without choking - then the real meaning of environmentalism hit me. It’s not some airy fairy aspirational sound biting best left to hippies, people who do yoga and Eurobores. Those are the people who are trying to beat back the deluge before it drowns us (maybe not the people who do yoga - some of them just want flexible hamstrings).

This is my reality (from the relative safety of my purified room). This is China’s reality. But imagine if it were a sign of things to come - for all of us.