Student Life - China Style

I think China has blocked my blog. I hope it’s not because I dissed Eat, Pray, Love. Also, my VPN - the thing that lets me look up illicit blocked webpages - is down. Actually, the only thing I look at is Facebook but now I feel cut off from the world because I have no idea who got engaged, who is hungover or who took photos of their dinner. The religious quotations and political opinions I could do without - the dinner photos, however, are fascinating.

It’s just as well China has cut off my access to Facebook (and lots of news sites but I don’t notice that so much), I should be studying instead. I am, after all, a student again. As of this week, I am a student in Shanghai Jiaotong University where I am pursuing competency in Chinese - I may be there for some time. According to Wikipedia (which I never doubt) the university is renowned as one of the oldest and most prestigious and selective universities in China (sounds like they might have written that themselves…). Notable past attendees of SJU include Jiang Zemin (former President of China), Luc Montagnier (a Nobel Prize Laureate for the discovery of HIV) and Ding Junhui (China’s top snooker player).

This is my third time attending University and I’m discovering that, in many ways, it’s all pretty much the same experience. This being China though, in other ways, it really isn’t.

Similarities between my Irish and Chinese University experiences:

  • There are a lot of nineteen year olds floating around the place. One of my new classmates told me how he had just ‘graduated high school’ last year (although it vexes me that Americans insist on graduating from school and don’t just leave noiselessly the way the rest of us do).

  • I have already rekindled my doodling skills and, this afternoon, produced a convincing bunch of daisies in the margin of my listening comprehension book.

  • While there is not a ramp on which people hang about posturing, there is a back stairwell where the Asian boys gather to smoke beside windows that they refuse to open. It seems Asian boys are the only people left who still smoke. Even the French have given up.

  • There’s a lot of preening and make-up adjustment in front of the mirrors in the ladies’ bathrooms. The giggling masses are now comprised of Korean teenagers who look like dolls rather than Irish teenagers who look like hookers - it’s the same vibe though.

  • I was given a student handbook during my first week. It outlined the history of the university, the ethos and the rules. The rules are a bit more far-reaching than I would have expected e.g. “students should not stay up late” and also a little more specific, e.g “students should not disseminate erotic, counter revolutionary material”. Ok then.

That’s pretty much where the similarities end.

Differences between my Irish and Chinese University experiences:

  • I actually have to work. Twenty hours of classroom lessons a week plus another 20-30 hours of extra study just to keep up. Also, there are no G&T breaks when studying in the library on a Wednesday afternoon.

  • There’s very little alcohol in general. I’d like to think this is because I’m pregnant but, really, it’s because it’s China. I’m fairly sure ‘no drinking’ is in the handy rule book too.

  • The chairs are really uncomfortable and built for midgets..sorry, petite Chinese frames. It would actually be difficult to make a more uncomfortable chair without involving shards of broken glass. I’m starting to wonder if I’m actually at a re-education facility. After four hours with my legs crammed under the desk at a funny angle and my spine wedged against a rod of metal - I’m ready to stop disseminating all that erotic, counter revolutionary material.

  • It’s hard to get a seat in the study room because all the Koreans use it to nap,

  • It is I who am the mature student. I’m trying to revolutionize the species. I don’t ask too many questions. Sometimes I don’t do my homework (not really) and I try not to sit in the front row. I usually manage row 2, maybe row 3…the pull of the front increases with age.

  • I am unlikely to marry one of my classmates.

  • The toilets are the hole-in-the-ground type. It’s interesting. I had a unique experience there last week with a pregnancy bump on the front and a bag full of text books on the back. My squatting skills will be so much improved by the end of the semester that I imagine I will be able to compete for Ireland in Olympic women’s weightlifting. Do they have a maternity category?

  • It’s ugly. Now I know most places are ugly compared to Trinity but I’m comparing it to UCD here. It looks like toilet, even on the outside. It’s ugly and dirty…but at least there’s heat, sometimes.

According to Jiaotong’s website, the campus looks like this:

However, the bit I see every day looks like this:



You should all be thankful I didn’t take a photo of the toilets. Instead, here’s a China-centric world map. Who knew Ireland was so close to falling off the edge?

Feeling Not So Bookish

I have a confession to make. I almost read Eat, Pray, Love. *silent shudder*. Actually, I did read the first hundred pages or so before I could no longer take the earnest, self-absorbed dullness of it. And the oversharing. A sudden bolt of context has suggested to me that perhaps I should desist with the stone throwing from within my glass menagerie. Well, at least I don’t ask people to pay to read my blog (just as well because I’m not sure even my mother would cough up the goods). Although I would like to have a movie made of my life - I’ve been to Italy, I’ve been to Bali…I understand that the attached husband and toddler detract from my marketability but they’re very hard to shake off. Maybe if I were more angsty and self-destructive - would nauseous and cranky have similar appeal? Perhaps not.

I know I’m probably subjecting your brain to more Eat, Pray, Love than it ever thought desirable but I want you to understand how desperate I was. I picked up a book - a memoir - about a woman who is getting a divorce so she goes on holiday for a year. That’s it - the entire plot. She doesn’t do it on a dollar a day because her publisher gave her a $200,000 advance (cheat). She doesn’t do anything obscure or dangerous - Italy, India and Indonesia (well, Bali, if you call that as Indonesia but it’s really more like Antipodean Florida). If I thought there was money in it I could write a novella about the 16 hour car journey I made to and from Tegal *semi-silent shudder* in Central Java. I fear my tale would suffer from a dearth of drama - although having to pee on the roadside under an active volcano in front of beeping motorists was fairly stressful (I am haunted by a disturbing scene in Dante’s Peak which has made me somewhat nervous around volcanos). If it is drama that is required, I could always write about Little A’s birth…less of a self-exploratory memoir though, more gothic thriller. Not sure there’s much of a market for that either. Also, I wasn’t a divorcée searching for love - but I was unmarried and searching for opiates, similar surely?

You may be wondering how Eat, Pray, Love came to be in my possession in the first place if it is so offensive to my literary sensibilities (in fact, I don’t have any literary sensibilities, I just have a very, very low bar below which I am reluctant to sink). I think my mother gave it to me - not in a ‘let me share a book I loved with you’ kind of way - more in a ‘people can’t see this on my bookshelf, please take it’ kind of way. It’s been floating around my own bookshelf for about five years now but I have never felt the need to pick it up…until this week. And what was the trigger? The trigger was - and this is where a lot of you are going to totally lose literary respect for me - is that EPL was preferable the book I’m actually reading which I hate so much, I am now considering reading Mr Oh’s 800 page history of Deng Xiao Ping (although it is full of interesting tid-bits - like apparently Xiao Ping means ‘Little Flat Head’…cute). In fact, I hate the book I’m reading to the point where I will (and have) read absolutely anything - China Daily, the weather forecast, student essays on George Bernard Shaw, a book on the history of space flight (actually, it’s rather good) - rather than read another single page of Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann.

I can hear some of you e-gasp. Let The Great World Spin…national treasure, winner of multiple awards, Irish voice of the modern American experience? Jesus wept. What misery fills the pages - it’s like the Eyeore of books. Now I don’t want to make sweeping generalizations but Irish writers are the most the depressive, unwieldy, overbearing bunch of sanctimoniously worthy bores that I have ever had the misfortune to feel obliged to read (on nationalistic grounds and also to avoid being accused of being culturally vacant with more than semi-alarming regularity). Too sweeping? Too general? Actually, Roddy Doyle is good…but, the rest of them, oh mine eyes, why must they be so dreary and grim? All the characters in Irish novels are alcoholics, sad farmers, grieving widows or dysfunctional sociopaths. It’s no wonder no one wants to go to Ireland on holiday…nothing to do with the rain.

Once I finish reading Let The Great World Spin - which at my current rate of a page a night should be somewhere around July 2016 - I am resolved to read Irish writers no more. And to avoid being labelled a philistine, I will read War and Peace, David Copperfield and Don Quixote (I’ve already read 1984, Frankenstein and the first six pages of Moby Dick). I also pledge to stop reading the Daily Mail online. That should cover it.


Rant? What rant?

I have a cold. I know that doesn’t seem newsworthy but I have a cold on top of morning sickness which really has to be one of the most unpleasant minor-illness combos around. For the last week, pretty much every time I stand up, I throw up. The only upside to having a cold is that I can no longer smell anything which is a massive relief, as I’ve discovered with my new pregnancy induced super sensitive smelling abilities, China smells yucky - like rancid electrified rat (that actually may very well be the source of the smell). Everything smells bad to me - soap, lavender, broccoli, the floors, face cream - things that I either usually think smell good or really aren’t supposed to smell at all suddenly are overpoweringly, nauseatingly disgusting. And my poor Little A - he does not smell great either - morning hugs are no longer the source of joy they once were.

I have been feeling nauseous now for 8 weeks. It’s an endless, grinding sickness that has rendered me essentially useless to the world during that time. I think I’m supposed to grin and bear it because pregnancy is a miracle and those who complain about it are ungrateful. I’m not ungrateful, I just don’t feel well. I’m definitely not glowing. I think women are supposed to silently suffer through pregnancy despite its many discomforts (in this case ‘discomforts’ is a euphemism - pregnancy hurts bad - pelvises moving, insomnia, vomiting, organs being squashed…I could go on). I remember when I was pregnant with Little A, I heard about a colleague who had suffered terribly from pregnancy sickness and would often have to make use of the ‘sick room’ in the office to lie down for spells. Apparently, this behavior was frowned upon, like perhaps she was a bit of chancer. Nothing was said to her face, of course, but there was no sympathy for her and her plight. She didn’t grin and bear it (probably because she couldn’t)- she didn’t carry on as if she was totally fine (because she wasn’t) - that’s what you’re supposed to do. Am I getting a bit whingy feminist? Gosh, that won’t do.

I was very sick when I pregnant with Little A. I would faint on the bus, throw up on the street, spend entire weekends in bed unable to eat anything except cereal. But over the course of my entire pregnancy, I only missed one day of work, and that wasn’t even a full day - it was two half days when I’d gone in but was actually unable to carry on and had to go home at lunch. There were days when I really wasn’t fit for work but I went in anyway because I didn’t want to be seen as a slacker. If I had the flu, I wouldn’t have gone in. If I had food poisoning, I wouldn’t have gone in. If I’d been as sick as I was for any other reason, I wouldn’t have gone in. But I was pregnant, so I had to. I felt that it was ‘bad enough’ that I was going off on maternity leave without giving anyone an excuse to say that I wasn’t a good worker. Pregnancy is pretty annoying for colleagues and employers - I understand that. They have to carry additional burden but I think often, in the workplace, women are made to feel guilty about being pregnant. (Oh, you’re pregnant…*big sigh*…congratulations). Of course, no one says anything, (well, one of my colleagues did!) but it’s there - palpable, passive aggressive and unspoken.

A lot of women have proudly told me how they were back at work six or eight weeks after the birth of their child. Why is that good? If that’s what you want to do then that’s fine. But if that’s what you think you need to do for your career, to prove to people you’re a good worker, then that just makes me sad.

I think the only way to tackle this is to share the child-bearing burden between the sexes. I had an arrangement with Mr Oh - one on which he has now scandalously reneged - by which I would have the first child and he would have the second. I got duped on that one. But the reality is that, if we want to have families, it’s the women who have to carry the physical burden and often also take the career hit. Because the working world is not set up for families with two working parents. Much of it is still constructed for a society where men work and women stay at home and run things there. A man could work until 6.30, travel home and he could find his dinner cooked, his children fed, their homework done - there was someone else to take care of this. But I don’t understand how, in the reality we face now, a man and woman are supposed to both finish work at 6.30, travel home, cook dinner, take care of their children and have them in bed by 7.30. It addles my brain.

Why aren’t we adjusting our workplace practices to a society where parents - both men and women - require more flexibility? With the amount of technology available to us, why do people need to turn up at a desk miles away from their home for a prescribed set of hours? Why do schools finish hours before the working day does?

I don’t know how my little, tiny rant about my nausea has turned into a rather larger rant about inequality in the workplace but I guess one just feeds into the other. I do know that it would all be much easier if nobody had any children and then everyone could work at their desk in the city until all hours without having to worry about pesky kids. If there were no children, women wouldn’t have to take reduced hours at work to take care of the children and, by doing so, dramatically reduce their chances of ever getting promoted again. If there were no children, a woman wouldn’t go back to work after maternity leave to find that almost her entire salary is going on childcare. But, then again, if there were no children, the teachers would all be unemployed and angry and then the human race would die out (not because the teachers were angry though)…so I’m thinking maybe lets keep the children and just make things a bit easier for parents.

[Disclaimer: it should be noted that this post was written by a woman who is currently on a career break to follow her husband to China for his job. It’s ok though, next time she will be the one working and he can stay at home and write angry feminist tirades from his bed when he has morning sickness.]


The Best Laid Plans...

P1176347 - Version 2
I’m not sure what the end of that saying is. If I were writing it, it would be “The best laid plans…will be thwarted by your toddler”. I make plans every day - all of them doomed. I plan to get Little A up, dressed and out within an hour. Then, invariably, one of the following (or several of the following in any combination) will happen:
  • Banana mushed into hair;
  • Bowl of half eaten Weetabix turned upside down on head;
  • Refusal to wear socks;
  • Removal of nappy while mother looking for trousers;
  • Peeing on socks once nappy removed;
  • Throwing toothbrush of mother into toilet;
  • Picking toothbrush out of toilet and trying to brush teeth with it;
  • Throwing self on floor and going totally limp when mother trying to leave house;
  • Adopting plank position and going totally rigid when mother trying to put in pram;
  • Screaming as if skin were on fire because banana is being washed out of hair;
  • Screaming for new banana.

Other ridiculous plans I make include:
  • Finishing a book that is not either Dear Zoo, Noisy Pirates or Where’s Spot;
  • Getting through a day without having my glasses knocked off my face by an angry swipe;
  • Going out for dinner without secretly wishing I was already in bed asleep;
  • Blow-drying my hair (I think the last time I properly blow-dried my hair was June 2012);
  • Doing fun, crafty activities with Little A that do not end up with Little A’s mouth turning green and/or blue handprints on the sofa.

What I need are fewer plans and an ability to be fully functional on four hours sleep. I read on some website that, when you become a parent, “Happy Hour” is the hour between when your child goes to bed and when you do. I’d say right now, it’s more like a Happy Quarter Hour. There have been times of late when I actually go to bed earlier than Little A.

Luckily for me, at some stage I managed to convince Mr Oh that putting Little A to bed is a daddy duty. As a result, I’m usually done parenting at 8pm (and ready for bed) and Mr Oh is in full command of the ship. Now Little A has generally been a good sleeper. A bath, a massage, a bit of dancing (he likes Daft Punk), a book, a bottle and he’s out like a light until morning. It was for this reason that Mr Oh felt fairly secure making an arrangement to meet friends in the pub at 10pm last Saturday night to watch the rugby. Oh, the plans…they’ll be our downfall. The toddlers, you see, they sense the plans. And they do not like them.

That night, Little A did not go to bed in time for Mr Oh to watch the rugby. He refused and, really, what can you do with a child who refuses to sleep? They can’t be forced to sleep, they can’t be reasoned with and, sadly, they can’t be drugged. There’s nothing for it but to wait until they themselves decide they’ve spun it out long enough to thwart your beloved plans. In this case, that was around 2am (nowhere to go at 2am).

You may ask what I was doing while Mr Oh’s one night off a quarter went drifting off into the abyss. The truth is that I was asleep and not particularly inclined to be awake. Would I not take over for a few hours and let the poor man go out and enjoy himself? Well, I would have except for three things:
1. Just the previous night I myself had been on Little A duty as Mr Oh had a “work dinner” (the “quotes” do not in any way imply that his “work dinner” was anything other than above board - it’s just that all-you-can-eat sushi isn’t what I’d describe as a tough assignment). I, too, foolishly had plans for that particular night - I planned to sleep. As midnight approached, I was lying in my bed while Little A sat by my head, pulling my ear and singing ‘La-la eh-oh’ repeatedly for the best part of an hour while using my forehead as a drum.
2. I was coming down with a head cold which was kindly given to me by Little A some days earlier when he decided to put his banana (that he had been chewing) into my mouth by way of showing me that he was finally grasping the concept of sharing.
3. I was feeling nauseous on account of the second baby which is proving that it is perfectly capable of thwarting plans despite the fact that it is unborn and about the size of a lemon.

I think that it’s safe to say we are doomed to be thwarted for the next five to ten years at least.

Happy Year of the Horsey!

PC246129 - Version 2
Happy Chinese New Year! Actually it was Chinese New Year last week but the firecrackers are still going off here in the middle of the night so who can tell? Luckily, Little A can sleep through rockets landing outside his window - this might come in handy if he pursues a career as a war reporter. Personally, I’d rather he didn’t but the sound of shells exploding near his head may remind him fondly of his childhood in Shanghai.

Despite the fact that Mr Oh had three days off work, we didn’t go anywhere. In fact, we only barely left the apartment. It seems like a waste, doesn’t it, to have all that free time and do nothing with it? I am satisfied in the knowledge that the not moving option was preferable to the going anywhere option. Chinese New Year is generally regarded as a massive general mill-about. It’s like a billion people suddenly stand up and decide to travel. Every plane, bus, train and donkey cart in the country is jammed with people going somewhere. The safest place to be during this time is where people are not going anywhere i.e. our apartment - there was very little going anywhere in our apartment.

Chinese New Year is a bit like Christmas, for Chinese people. They hang out with their families and eat. As much as I’m loathe to admit it, in many ways CNY is better than Christmas. For one, there’s no present shopping. This has to be a good thing. I’m not good at presents. Sadly, we seem to be surrounded by friends and family who are really good at giving presents and never forget (you know who you are). We thought we might have shaken them off when we moved to China and conveniently forgot to give anyone our postal address. It turns out there’s nowhere to hide from present-givers. They will track you down and they will send you a lovely and thoughtful gift even if you live in China, your address is in Chinese and you lost the key to your mailbox. Even then, the presents will arrive. You will be horrified by the fact that you have, yet again, failed at present-giving and resolve, in the Year of the Horse, to find out where the post office in Shanghai is located and learn how to say ‘send this to Europe quick-smart’ in Chinese.

The Chinese don’t need to worry about this. They do not do presents (an unforeseen side-effect of which is the difficulty finding wrapping paper in China). That’s not strictly true. Chinese people do give presents but they don’t wrap them and they’re not like the kind of things we would give. It’s more like “Happy New Year, here’s a gallon of cooking oil”. Cooking oil is a good gift. Everyone needs cooking oil. I was once given a bottle of insect repellent for Chinese New Year. It was very practical and protected me from itching and malaria. I appreciated it a lot more than the golden, ornamental desk rat (I kid you not) I was once given by a former boss for Christmas. In defense of my former boss, he might have given it to me in the Year of the Rat but I really can’t say for sure. It now sits proudly in the office of my successor who, on a recent visit back to the office, kindly offered to return it to me (along with the golden, ornamental fern the same boss gave me the following year).

Chinese New Year is not about presents. There are no trees and surprisingly few decorations. There are no carols or men with beards (Chinese men can’t grow beards very well). There are, however, red envelopes stuffed with money. These ‘hong baos’ (which means ‘red envelope’) are what the Chinese give to each other. They are much better than presents. Parents give them to children, bosses give them to their employees. I gave one to Ayi. It was in a white envelope rather than a red one but I wrote ‘hong bao’ on the outside and put money inside so I don’t think she minded too much. I didn’t give one to Little A because he likes to throw money in the toilet - coins mostly (he likes the sound) - but also notes if he finds them. Instead, we bought him a ball pit filled with hundreds of small plastic balls - what a mistake that was - I should have given him money and let him throw it in the toilet - it would have been less messy.