You Are Where You Eat

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I have never bought meat from a wet market in Shanghai.  I'm not sure if that's something to be proud or ashamed of.  I think it's just sensible.  Our wet market is pretty nasty.  There are flies and foul odours.  I have it on a reliable source that there are rats too.  I have been warned never to look through the windows of the market at night.  Teeming with life - apparently.  

Meat is a pretty dodgy substance in China.  I imagine it's injected with everything going...steroids, botox, concrete.  In Guangdong, they injected lamb meat (so just lamb I guess) with dirty pond water.  True story.  You can see why I'm not too keen on the wet market.   I don't even buy my vegetables there anymore but that's ever since they told Ayi that I had to pay more because I'm a foreigner.  I've been boycotting.  I don't think they've missed my business.  

The longer I live here, the more careful I get about where our food is sourced.  Like most things regarding safety here, my standards sway depending on my mood (which are directly influenced by the pollution levels and the amount of public spitting that has taken place in my immediate vicinity).  Some days I will only buy food that has been hand-picked by a Nicaraguan virgin and air-flown to China in a hermetically sealed chamber lined with pink Swaraovski crystals.  Other days, I'll eat something grown in China.  

So, I often end up in the foreign butcher weeping over the price of Australian beef or Norwegian salmon - neither of which we have eaten since arriving here because it's just too expensive.  If we're lucky, I buy chicken or pork but even they cost double what you'd pay at home.  

They call this 'sticker shock'.   It's when you nearly pass out in the supermarket because they want to charge €3 for small baguette.  And it's not like the bread is expensive to make or imported.  It's just the kind of things that foreigners like and those things are always expensive.  That's Mr Oh's theory anyway.  He says it explains the price of dishwasher tablets and toilet roll (the locals use toilet paper too, it just doesn't come on a roll).  

Speaking of toilet roll, the first week we were in China, Mr Oh paid about €15 for six rolls of toilet paper.  He said he bought it because there was English on the package and he knew what it was.  I calmly said "NEVER BUY ANYTHING WITH ENGLISH ON IT. USE YOUR EYES TO SEE WHAT IT IS. WE DO NOT NEED OUR TOILET PAPER TO BE IMPORTED".   (Mr Oh slinks silently off with the €15 toilet paper under his arm.)

So, first I decided that we would go vegetarian because meat is too expensive.  That didn't work out so well because I almost bankrupted us buying a small tub of ricotta for the creamy vegetable pasta.   The mistake, I thought at this point, is that I'm trying to cook western food when I should be cooking Chinese food.  It was a lightbulb moment.  I scuttled off to get my Ken Hom Simple Chinese recipe book. I picked out a nice noodle dish and spent the next three days trying to find either water chestnuts or gai-lan in China.  You'd think that it being Chinese cookery, you should be able to find the bloody ingredients in China.  Not so.  

So I picked out another recipe that didn't involve either gai-lan or water chestnuts.  It did involve Sichuan peppercorns though and Sichuan peppercorns are not called Sichuan peppercorns in Chinese, so I couldn't find them.  Eventually, I had to enlist Ayi.  I googled a picture of all the unfamiliar ingredients and did some kind of pathetic translation attempt and Ayi worked out the Chinese name for me.  She thought it was pretty stupid that we call Sichuan peppercorns Sichuan peppercorns when their real name is 'Hua Jiao' or 'flower peppers'.  Having translated for me,  she went to the market to get them for me.  I would have gone myself but I'm boycotting the market, as discussed.  

Eventually I have all the ingredients Ken Hom says I need to make Northern-Style Cold Noodles.  I've got the Sichuan peppercorns - I've even roasted them and hand ground them into a fine powder as Ken requested.  I'm standing in the kitchen yesterday afternoon making my noodle sauce as Ayi looks disapprovingly at me. 

"Too much spice", she says in Chinese, pointing at my large spoon of chilli bean paste.  I'm like "the recipe says I need to use a tablespoon".  Ayi says  "you foreigner, too much, ah-la-la".  I reduce the amount, mostly to stop her grabbing the spoon off me and taking over.  The recipe called for four tablespoons of soy sauce, Ayi only let me put in three.  
Me - "The recipe says four spoons, Ayi".  
Ayi - "Ayi says three". 
Me - "This is Ken Hom.  He's Chinese.  He's famous.  He knows" 
Ayi - "Ayi is Chinese. Ayi knows.". 

Turns out Ayi did know.  The noodles were delicious, the spicy level just right.  I now call it the Ayi Hom Noodle dish.   If cooking vegetarian Chinese food is going to involve so much collaboration though, I'd be better off just asking Ayi to cook instead.  I know she thinks we'd all be better off if I did that too.

(Apologies if you’re offended by the photo at the top of the blog. It’s of chicken feet at our wet market. I’m offended by it too…that’s why I don’t go there).


Flying Without Fear

At some point last year, I was lying on the sofa, heavily pregnant (which for me was anytime after month 3 onwards) eating what was probably my seventh bowl of chocolate-sugar-cluster-cereal of the day.  I was browsing the internet, specifically the Shanghai Mamas website for interesting tidbits of information...details of how someone's ayi slapped their children and ran off to the mountains of Anhui province with all their jewellry and 20kg of organic infant formula hand carried from Minnestota.  I like these kinds of stories.  I also like to keep an eye out to see who is looking for what and where it be found - e.g. WTF almond powder? - invariably the answer is either Taobao or the Avocado Lady (the largest online market in the world and the smallest streetside hole in the wall respectively)...more on both of these in the next installment.  It was a few months before I realised that WTF was 'Where To Find' and not 'What the F@*k'.  I'm kind of disappointed now.  I preferred it when the Shanghai Mamas were a bunch of foul-mouthed, pissed-off angry ladies looking for baking supplies...although I suspect they still might be.  

Anyway, so I came across this one post asking whether flying on your own from Shanghai to Europe with a small baby and a toddler was possible.  My immediate reaction was 'Hell no, crazy people!.'  Yet to my surprise, the replies all indicated that not only was it possible, but the lovely expat ladies of Shanghai seemed to be at this kind of thing all the time.  One woman even said that she regularly flies back to the States on her own with four children (I reckon that's cheating because if you have four children then surely the eldest is at least old enough to act as a kind of foreman/pack mule).  

I shouldn't have been surprised by this though.  The expat moms of Shanghai are tough sons of bitches. They're constantly monitoring air pollution and can spend up to a week barricaded in their apartments with stir-crazy kids when the air gets really bad. They put their hands down the back of taxi seats in search of a damp, musty seatbelt that is likely home to at least three new strains of dengue fever so they can strap in a carseat.  They test their water/paint/toys for lead before it poisons their children and constantly try to find safe food in a country where even an 'organic' certification can be faked or bought. They negotiate bank transfers and food deliveries in a language that is so alien to English speakers that it might as well be Klingon.  They go to five different shops to get the ingredients for one meal. They wrestle face masks onto screaming children and spend way too much time shouting 'Don't touch that!' at curious toddlers. They haul babies, buggies and bags up and down hundreds of steps getting to and from the subway and they physically throw their own bodies in front of taxis and buses trying to get their kids across the road on a green man.   Shanghai mamas are like Navy Seals.  They're fearless, they're tough and they 
will elbow you in the face if you tell them that their child is not wearing enough clothes.  Flying long-haul with two small children?  Bring it.  

So it was partially bravado and partially a lack of alternatives that led to my decision to fly from Shanghai to Ireland on my own with a 2 year old and a 3-month-old.   It doesn't sound so hard at first, what could possibly go wrong?  Well, eventually someone will need to go to the bathroom.  That's what. 

It was six months of planning for about 20 hours of travelling.  It was an operation.  I have developed an entirely new skill-set - one that might come in handy some day if I'm ever invading a moderately fortified city or putting down a military coup, for example. The journey itself was what one might class a success based on the fact that a) no-one died, b) no-one engaged in high-altitude screaming and c) no-one did a poo that ran up their back.   

Now that 'the journey' is but a distant memory (and the PTSD has reduced to the faintest of tremors), I feel able to share some guidelines and tips for those who might someday be facing a similar trial.  

1.   Pack as light as is possible.  This is as light as is possible:
- 1 lightweight buggy that can be folded with one hand and thrown over the shoulder while simultaneously carrying two children and four bags;
- 1 sling or carrier (I would reccommend a semi structured type with full buckles in a vomit resistant material);
- 1 changing bag containing enough nappies and wipes for two children for 24 hours.  This will take up the whole bag, there will not be room for anything else.  
- 1 backpack containing 2 laptops, two iPhones, two sticker books, a collection of at least 10 (small) new toys for the toddler ("stop, have a tiny stegosaurus") and at least a kilo of chocolate.  All electronic equipment should be well stocked with movies, tv shows, apps and anything else that two-year-olds find engaging i.e. videos of themselves and anything with singing fish.  Pack toddler headphones so you don't have to listen to Iggle-piggle-iggle-onk for ten hours straight.  
-  4 lollipops (for take off and landing on the two flights). 
-  A beany neck pillow - a huge space waster but when the exhausted toddler is finally asleep after 10 full hours of not being even a little bit asleep, you will not want to rely on anything inflatable or flimsy for his precarious comfort.  
- Three changes of clothes for each child.  
-  Passports - it's surprising how easy it is to overlook this when swamped under a pile of nappies and mini-dinosaurs.  

2.   When on the flight, I found that the following activity rotation worked well for the toddler - tv, new toy, unhealthy snack, repeat.  Repeat.  Repeat.  Repeat.  Repeat.  Repeat.  Repeat.  Repeat.   

3.   The baby is the easy one.  Put him in the bassinet and take him out to feed.   Breastfeeding is easiest.  This isn't a judgmental, emotive, divisive opinion.  This is a transport fact.   Be aware that whenever the baby falls asleep and you put him in the bassinet, you will hit turbulence within five minutes and have to take him out again.  He will wake up again and you will feed him again.  It's just as well that Fireman Sam is on loop beside you.  

4.  Pray that your air hostess isn't a total bitch.  Ours was (thumbs down to you British Airways).  Thankfully we had the most lovely pregnant Spanish woman on the other side of Little A.  He called her 'Lady' and tried to feed her his snacks.  She seemed to genuinely think he was cute which I find surprising given the close proximity and the length of the flight but I'm putting it down to hormonal blindsiding.  

5.  Plan on not sleeping.  You will not sleep.  It is your job not to sleep.  

6.  I'm not going to lie to you, transiting through Heathrow is not fun.  You won't have the luxury of getting off the plane last and taking your time.  As soon as those fasten seatbelt signs go off you need to throw the baby into the sling, backpack on, bags over shoulder and whisper promises to the toddler involving raisins and lollipops as you coax him down the aisle, out the doors of the plane and into his buggy.  Then you need to start running, and you need to keep running, for about an hour.  Everyone will be crying (including you).  Don't fall into the trap of believing that just because you don't have to change terminals that this will be easy, or even well-signposted.  You will still have to take one train, pass through immigration, pass through random photobooth thing plus security plus a lot of long, corridors to get to your connecting flight.  There will be long queues that you cannot afford to wait in because you will miss your flight.  This is when the fact that all three of you are crying will come in handy.  People are not heartless, even the security staff at Heathrow (I think they've been given a very bad rap).  Do not be afraid to wail publicly.  It will help.  You will get through it all and your mother will be standing at the other end of security with a sandwich and bottle of chilled San Pellegrino to help you along the final, short leg of the seemingly endless journey.  

7.  Before I flew, another Shanghai mama said to me "It's hell. But it ends".   Amen.  

There are a number of people I'd like to thank for making 'the journey' a not-totally-unbearable experience.   My husband, Mr Oh, for not divorcing me in the run-up to the journey.  The amazing security people at Heathrow, who opened up a lane just to let me through and didn't make me take off my shoes - I have never wanted to hug strangers so much (but I didn't because they're still kind of scary).  The nasty British Airways air hostess who never answered the call bell and rolled her eyes whenever I asked for milk to be heated - you made me a stronger person (and I reported you to BA when I got back).  'Lady', our Spanish guardian angel and the best travelling companion a toddler could have.  My mother, for flying all the way to London just to make the last stage a little bit easier.   And finally, the Shanghai Mamas for being badass and making me think I could do it.  

I need a nap.