The Andrex Toddler

Sometimes I look at Little A and think he might be the reincarnated spirit of my parents’ dog, Rocco. Were it not for the fact that Rocco did not die until Little A was several months old, I would be certain that our child is channelling chocolate labrador. Given the crossover in boy/dog alive time, he may just be a chocolate coated labradoresque toddler.

Indications that Little A may, in fact, be the reincarnated spirit of Rocco:

1. He eats everything. Left to his own devices, he would eat until he keels over from either nausea or exhaustion. People who use the term ‘child-sized portions’ haven’t met Little A. I wouldn’t take him on in a broccoli fritter eating competition…there’s only one winner there and it isn’t mama.

2. He’s friendly. He bounds up to random Chinese people on the street and licks them (ok, sometimes it’s biting). It’s not hygienic but it’s better than head butting the ground (which is what he does if you try to keep him away from his people).

3. He bites. I have a red welt on my collarbone where he bit me yesterday in a fit of exuberance. I catch myself shouting ‘no bite!’ at him like I used to do with Rocco. I must occasionally remind myself that my son is not actually a labrador.

4. In the long tradition of labrador puppies, he likes playing with toilet paper. Only yesterday, when I was momentarily distracted, he managed to locate two brand new toilet rolls and gleefully threw them into the bath I was running for him. He found this hilarious. He knew he did wrong - he didn’t care. Thankfully we don’t have any stairs or he’d be re-enacting the Andrex ads on a daily basis.

5. He needs a lot of exercise. As AA Milne said “A bear, however hard he tries, grows tubby without exercise”. He needs to be tired out on a daily basis. Running around in circles, chasing things and swimming are favorite past times.

6. He needs to be walked. But like Rocco, he doesn’t like walking under instruction (he’s a free spirit that way). I’ve got a little backpack for him with a…um…safety rope attached. It’s not a lead, I swear (I don’t walk my baby, really). He needs to be kept on the ‘safety rope’. You might think he’s walking in an appropriately orderly fashion and then suddenly he’ll see a leaf in the middle of the road, think “oooh, leaf!” and zoom off after it - for someone who’s only learned to walk a few months ago, he’s surprisingly nippy.

7. He sheds. Mostly his socks.

8. Like Rocco, he does not like being washed and goes ballistic when I try to rinse his hair. I think he’s being a tad unreasonable on this point - at least I’m not trying to rinse him outside in winter with a hose.

7. He’s also good natured, playful and he likes having his belly rubbed.


Morning Orchid, Soaring Dragon

PA285675 - Version 2
When you born, you are given a name and you usually get to keep your name throughout your life, if you so wish. You can change it if you want to - either because you got married or just because you fancy being called Rainbow Kettlefish - but you generally get to keep it if you like it. There are two exceptions to this:
1. When you go to the Gaeltacht and they morph your name into something three times as long and impossible to spell (Caoimhe, it took me six years to learn where those slanty bits go in your name - sometime I still check on Facebook); and
2. When you move to China.

Take Silvio Berlusconi, for example. Silvio Berlusconi is Silvio Berlusconi wherever he goes. When Silvio goes to London, they don’t start calling him ‘Silas’ (that’s the English version of Silvio, who knew?) - no, they call him Silvio Berlusconi as his mother intended. Even the good people at Telefís na Gaeilge (as it was known back in the day) knew that you do not f*** with the name Silvio Berlusconi. As my friend BMcG noted at one point when listening to the news in Irish one day, all you really hear is “Nyaca nyaca nyaca nyaca nyaca nyaca Silvio Berlusconi nyaca nyaca nyaca nyaca”. It counts as Irish if you say the foreign name in a culchie accent, apparently.

Were Silvio to travel to China, however, or even appear on the news here, he would no longer be Silvio Berlusconi simply because those sounds do not exist in Chinese. I’m sure there is a far more technical way of explaining it but essentially the problem is that there are no letters in Chinese - there are only words - small words that are put together to make bigger words. You cannot break the language down smaller than the word. You could try to make an approximation using the available words. My attempt is Sha-li-yu Bao-li-kao-ni but it could well mean ‘pink bucket in slime cucumber’ - this is a very risky approach. The better option all round is to pick a new name entirely - one that captures the essence of your being. Silvio could, for example, be Qian Feitu (roughly translated it means Money Gangster but it sounds better in Chinese). They couldn’t pronounce Elvis in China at all so they call him Wang Mao (King Cat). Honestly, if you say Elvis, they haven’t a notion but Wang Mao is very famous in China.

I was given my Chinese name - Bai Xiaolan (白
晓兰)- when I first came to China. It means ‘white morning orchid’. Apt, non? This isn’t just some make-up name either (well, it is) but it’s on my official Chinese Government issued ID. I picked it for many reasons, but mostly because it’s easy to write. Mr Oh had to get one as well when he came and seems to have ended up with Dai Feihong (戴飞鸿) which is proving to be an interesting choice. The first character Dai is the only Chinese family name that starts with D so it seemed appropriate even though it’s so complicated it just looks like a big black squiggle. This is Dai a bit bigger:

I don’t know how he’s ever supposed to learn how to write it. I’m definitely not taking his name now.

Mr Oh has Dai Feihong printed on all his business cards. Whenever a Chinese person spots his name, they laugh. Initially this was confusing to him. He thought maybe he had been accidentally named the Chinese equivalent of Toy Bear. We had a Chinese student once in our school who was called Toy Bear and had to be gently encouraged to change it before he moved to London with his job. Feihong, it turns out, means “goose swan”. It isn’t exactly kick-ass but it’s hardly cause for mockery. After some investigation, it turns out that the laughing was on account of
this man, Wang Feihong, a Chinese martial arts folk-hero. In China, it’s like giving someone your business card and saying, “Hello, I’m Chuck Norris”.

It doesn’t end there. Little A needed a Chinese name too. One of Mr Oh’s colleagues volunteered to help me out in choosing one. His family name would be Dai, the same as Mr Oh’s, so it was just the given name I had to pick. I suggested that maybe it could reflect his personality (active, strong, stubborn, fiery) and also give a nod to the fact that he was born in the year of the Dragon. She suggested the name Teng Long which means ‘soaring dragon’ and we settled on that. It’s a bit of an adult name though. As Little A’s Chinese teacher said to me “It’s a big name for a little boy”. While he’s still officially called Teng Long, his teachers and ayi all call him Xiao Long (Little Dragon).

It was only at the weekend when we discovered that Xiao Long is a very well known name in China. The man they know as Li Xiao Long, we know as Bruce Lee.

We’re going to get a goldfish and call it Jackie Chan.


PA045579 - Version 2
It was a normal morning. Little A woke at 7.30 - happy and gurgly - making sweet little toddler noises. We played together for a few minutes and then went to get breakfast. I took off his nappy to let his skin breathe and popped him in his high chair. Breakfast was uneventful - we had poached eggs on toast and most of it went in a mouth (either mine or his). Only a mini amount ended up on the wall. I packed his lunch bag and lifted him out of his high chair. I was just about to bring him into his room to dress him when I noticed a smear of egg yolk on the table. If that stuff is allowed to dry it turns into concrete. I put Little A on the ground and ran into the kitchen to grab a cloth and wipe down the table. No more than ten second later I was finished and planning out Little A’s outfit for the day in my head (dungarees, t-shirt, hoodie - dressing boys isn’t exactly fine art).

I walked over to where he sat on my lovely, green, silk rug. “What’s that you’re playing with buddy?” I cooed. “Are you playing with conkers?”. Wtf was I thinking…conkers? There are no feckin trees in Shanghai. My eyes widened with horror. It’s not conkers…it’s poo!!! He looks up and smiles at me from atop his poo pile as he continued to do what he does best, smush things into other things - rug, face, hair, bellybutton. Waaah - I wail and grab him off the floor. “Oh goodie” he is no doubt cackling in his head as I lift him onto my hip “more things to smush things into - t-shirt, arm, neck, eye”.

I run frantically into the bathroom and turn on the water. I rub soap over areas that need it - which is most of him - and try to get some water on him. He starts screaming as if the water were acid. He thrashes and fights and tries to put a bacteria infested finger in my mouth and then, when that doesn’t work, in his own mouth. “NO!” I scream as I pull his finger away from his mouth. He throws back his head with rage and then, as if delving into the bank of bold toddler innate knowledge, he throws his arms above his head and goes limp. I am now left with 13kg of deadweight in my hands coated with a slimy melange of hand soap and poo. He slides to the ground and starts scrabbling away on his hands and knees leaving ‘muddy’ handprints in his wake. I grab an ankle before it slips beyond my grasp and haul him back. I lift him forcefully and hold him under the tap which seems to have reduced to a trickle and then…drip, drip, drip…nothing at all. Today is not the day they’re turning the water off to work on the mains, is it? It can’t be! Surely not. It is.

45 minutes and 243 baby wipes later, we’ve both stopped crying and we’re ready to go to playschool. I just hope no one hugs him too closely today.

Zhou Ayi

PB025764 - Version 2As much as I’ve enjoyed staying at home with Little A (he’s no longer Baby A!) for the last fifteen months, I’m exhausted. I would like to be able to pee without someone watching. I would like to be able to send an email without someone writing cryptic messages throughout (ldksafioer9>>?). I would like to have a meal without someone screaming at me for daring to eat, when it is widely known that all food in Babydom is reserved for the consumption of the national dictator with the sole exception of bananas (but I’m still not allowed to eat them because he likes to squash them in his hands and run the resulting mush through his hair - good conditioner apparently although I can testify otherwise).

Don’t get me wrong, I really have loved being around this one little person for pretty much every single hour since his birth. I love the fact that he bites me, scratches my face and pulls my hair. No one else gets treated this badly by him and it’s wonderful. It means that he knows that I love him unconditionally - he feels so safe and secure with me that he can truly be himself (the fact that being himself seems to involve eye gouging is best ignored). I hope he always feels that way although I really hope he finds another way to show it as people are starting to think that Mr Oh is beating me (bite marks on my cheeks, bruises on my arm…it seems like the obvious explanation).

It was always the plan that I would do intensive Mandarin study once we got settled in Shanghai. From February, I will be studying full-time in Jiaotong University, this means I’ll have to get Little A’s childcare set up by then. He’s already in playschool in the mornings and we decided, rather than keep him in playschool all day, that we would get an ayi to look after him in the afternoons. In Chinese, ‘ayi’ means auntie but it is generally used to refer to a woman who helps out in your house. In China, creches don’t really exist and small Chinese children either stay at home with their grandparents or with an ayi.

The nanny option is not one that we could afford in Ireland but labour is a bit cheaper in a country with no minimum wage and huge income disparity. Is hiring an ayi therefore exploitation? I have thought about this and concluded (conveniently) that it is not. A good ayi in Shanghai gets a higher monthly salary than Chinese junior doctors. They’re not cheap. They earn substantially more than I did as a full-time English teacher here a few years ago. By Chinese general standards, it’s a good salary. How come we can afford to pay it if it’s a good salary? In a way, there are two worlds in China. My world is much more expensive than an ayi’s world. Not because I want better things but because a) I don’t look Chinese b) I don’t speak/read particularly good Chinese and c) I’m not Chinese. An ayi does not want to eat Weetabix which, at €8 a box, should really have flakes of gold running through it. An ayi wants to eat dumplings for breakfast which, at 50c for four, are cheap as dumplings (dumplings are cheaper than chips). Should I not eat dumplings for breakfast rather than Weetabix, would that not make more sense? I could - but I’d need to hire an ayi first to go and get them for me because I’m likely to get charged €8 for them on account of being a foreigner. The things that I need/want: avocados, olive oil, English books, clothes in a size bigger than ‘miniature’, wine (obviously I need wine), cheese - all cost, not only a lot more than the goods a Chinese person wants/needs, but quite a lot more than the same goods in Europe. Imported baby infant formula, for example, is €50 a box here. At home it’s about €15 a box. Why don’t I use Chinese infant formula? This is why: What do Chinese people do when they want infant formula? They get people to buy it for them in Europe/US/Australia etc and send it to them. Big business in that. I’m considering it as a future career path.

I managed to overcome my ongoing ethical analysis of the issue rather quickly when I came to understand that, in addition to looking after Little A, the ayi would most likely also do the ironing. Not that I ironed before we had an ayi. Everything in the house was crumpled with the exception of Mr Oh’s work shirts, which he ironed himself. You’d be waiting around here a long time before you’d see me pick up an iron. I’m allergic to the fumes.

Even though I don’t start uni for another three months, we wanted to get an ayi in place as soon as possible - just in case it didn’t work out and we had to find an alternative solution. I was very nervous about the whole process. The agency sent us four candidates to interview - along with a translator because they don’t really speak any English and it would be a short interview if we were relying on my aptitude for the Chinese language. We were all over the place the morning of the interview. Little A had a fever and the interviews were conducted over the angry wailing of an unhappy toddler. It’s hard to know what questions to ask someone who you’re interviewing to look after your child. Do you like the music of Bon Jovi? Are you prone to violent outbursts? Eoghan asked the good questions and I mostly sat scanning their faces for signs of psychosis and/or evil.

My one key question was: What would you do if Little A was choking? One of them said, “Give him vinegar” and then when I didn’t look very happy with that answer followed it up with, “…and then if that didn’t work, take him to hospital in a taxi”. I wonder if she noticed me scrawling the word ’NO!’ beside her name? Two candidates insisted that they would know what to do, telling me that they had done first aid courses, but seemed vague about the particulars. The final one mimed picking up a child by the ankles and beating it soundly on the back. We hired her.

The word ayi means “Auntie”. Ayi a 50 year old grandmother from Shanghai. She smiles a lot and she speaks Chinese to Little A and me. Our first two weeks were the training period where we’d both be in the house and I could show her how things work. I was very uncomfortable with the whole thing. Like a good Irish employer, I followed her about the place offering her cups of tea and cake. I found it difficult to tell her what I wanted her to do in case I offended her. I think this pissed her off. I then became scared of her and spent a lot of time hiding out around the corner in the coffee shop. Then, one day, I was showing her the local grocery market where I wanted to buy a courgette. I took her to my usual vegetable lady. I held up a courgette and Ayi asked how much it was in Chinese. Grocery lady said ‘5.5 yuan’. Ayi said ‘Why so expensive!”. Grocery lady said brazenly ‘because she’s a foreigner’ as if that was perfectly acceptable (I suppose it is here). Ayi released a hail of torpedo rage on grocery lady resulting in procurement of the courgette for somewhere under 3 yuan. She then turned to me and slowly said in her best English, “You no more shopping. Ayi shopping now”. I think I’ll keep her.