The Shanghai Smack-down

IMG_1607 - Version 2

You might be wondering if I’m going to spend the next three years writing about the 911 bus. I might. Although eventually I may no longer be phased by the friendly harassment visited upon me by the old people of China - or maybe I’ll just start dressing my child in a way that they find more acceptable i.e. more clothes, looser socks, none of this fancy sling business.

I wrote a few weeks ago about getting on a particularly peculiar version of my trusty 911 - this time with tables inside and no roof on top. It has become something of a regular on my route. I took a few covert photos last time I was on just in case no one believes me that the bus has tables. It’s hard to take sneaky photos when you’re the only baby-toting foreigner on the route. I probably should have just taken the photos openly but, to be honest, they think I’m weird enough as it is. If you look closely you can also see the shouting bus conductress behind the tv.



The table-bus has become my favorite way to travel but it wasn’t until yesterday that I found myself on it unencumbered by Baby A and therefore able to check out the roofless upper deck. It’s essentially a dilapidated tourist bus which, presumably, is why there’s no roof. It was a glorious autumnal Shanghai morning. The sun was beaming down and the world was looking very fresh and pretty. I bounded up the stairs of the bus and was surprised to find it totally deserted despite the fact that downstairs was wedged. I had the whole top deck to myself - just me, the breeze and the Shanghai sunshine - bliss! I couldn’t fathom why the Chinese wouldn’t come up here on such a lovely day but they can be peculiar about the elements. As a nation, they’re not very outdoorsy.

So I was happily relaxing on the top deck on my ownsers, peering down at the peeps, soaking up the rays and…wham!…smacked in the face by a branch. Thankfully, all my fellow bus riders were downstairs and my humiliation was therefore without witness. I recovered swiftly but spent the rest of the journey crouched down in the aisle keeping an eye on the various dangling electrical wires and foliage that suddenly seemed closer than would be acceptable to ensure general bodily safety. The lesson of the day was - if the Chinese don’t do something, think about why that might be. Do they not sit upstairs because they’re peculiar about the outdoors or is it more likely because they don’t fancy being beat-down by a tree?

It was an educational experience. I took it on the chin (literally) and dealt with it by doing what one does when one gets bitch slapped by China - turned on country music. Nothing is less China than country.


Yi Jia Jia Ju

I’ve moved house/country four times in the last 2.5 years so I’d like to think that I’m something of an expert on hauling oneself and a pile of one’s unnecessary belongings across the globe. At this stage, even my furniture is cross with me. There are many things you can do to prepare for a move, facilitate a smooth transition and reduce relocation stress. I’m a pro - I know all the tricks. There are only two things that are set in stone when it comes to moving house: 1. You will be shocked at the amount of useless stuff that you have accumulated in the previous location and 2. You will, upon arriving in new location, go straight to IKEA to buy more useless stuff. There’s no point in fighting it - some battles cannot be won - IKEA is inevitable.

I honestly do not know what happens if you move to a city where there is no IKEA. I shudder to think. It hasn’t happened to me since I moved to Wuxi in 2002 and anyone who knows me will know that I do not have good things to say about either Wuxi or 2002. Wuxi means ‘without tin’ which isn’t a very auspicious moniker if we’re honest. If you start naming towns based on what they’re lacking, it doesn’t bode well. I wonder if it’s too late to change Wuxi’s name from ‘without tin’ to ‘without IKEA’ (Wuyijiajiaju) - it’s a bit of a mouthful so I fear I might meet local resistance to the idea. Just as well I don’t plan going there ever again.

I digress. The point is - IKEA cannot be avoided. And why should it be? It’s bright, clean and has everything you didn’t even know you needed at affordable prices. Baby A didn’t know he needed a toddler sized baby rattan armchair, but he did. I don’t know how we ever lived without it - all toddlers should have one. In Singapore I made three visits to IKEA after the move. In Brussels, we made three trips out to the IKEA in Zaventem overall. We’ve been to IKEA twice already since we moved to Shanghai and I’ve had that feeling in my bones that the third trip was becoming more likely. Mr Oh thought my bones were lying to me and put it down to a touch of gout, but he was wrong. He fought it - by God, he fought it but in the end, as I’ve already said, IKEA is inevitable.

The problem isn’t really IKEA although anyone who’s been silly enough to try to go there on a Saturday afternoon (i.e. me) knows that sometimes maybe the problem is IKEA. The problem, this time, is China and IKEA - they don’t really get each other. For the Chinese, shopping is something you do online (Taobao) or at your local hole-in-the-wall random dude. IKEA is therefore not so much a place for buying things as a venue for hanging out with your extended family drinking tea and taking selfies in the show kitchens. And napping…it’s impossible to see a sofa or bed in IKEA because they’re usually all occupied by three generations of Shanghainese taking a communal catnap. I see the logic - why would IKEA put beds there if they didn’t want people to sleep on them? The result though is akin to walking through one of those Halloween house of horrors with the lights on. Everywhere there are bodies, progress is slow and at a few points along the defined trail, you’re actually a bit scared.

It doesn’t help knowing that, if you put your toddler down for a moment, he gets picked up by a curious Chinese person who thinks he might be part of the showroom. “See the Europeans live in their natural environment” - I’m sure it says that somewhere. You can see why Mr Oh wasn’t keen to repeat a Chinese IKEA experience. I had to be firm and told him, in no uncertain terms, that a visit was absolutely necessary. He asked me to define what it was that we needed so desperately. “Oh, you know…” I said, “sticky things, boxy things and those brightly colored roundy things”. He couldn’t argue with that.

We went last Sunday evening. We were clever about it. We skipped the showrooms. Chinese people don’t actually buy anything in IKEA so the tills are fairly empty. They only use the downstairs area because it’s the shortest route between the Swedish dream rooms and the 10c ice cream cones (also very popular). We were in and out within a reasonable time frame. There was a tense moment in the boxy thing area where the human equivalent of a 10 car pile up seemed to be taking place but we discovered that IKEA has these random little escape doors between different areas so you don’t actually have to follow the circuitous arrows (although I’m very law abiding so this option hadn’t occurred to me before). Well, I never! It was like straight out of an Enid Blyton - in kitchenware one moment and then - through the magic door - and pop out right at lighting! Incroyable!

We emerged triumphant, laden down with inevitable, unavoidable, irresistible things and without too many injuries. Feeling quite pleased with self, I let Baby A down just beside the food section to stretch his legs a bit while Mr Oh loaded up the bags. I turned my head for a moment to check out the Swedish biccie section and when I whipped my head back around, literally about two seconds later, Baby A was standing in the middle of the mayhem, not two feet from me, with an untouched IKEA ice cream cone in his hand and look of shock on his face. I don’t know where it came from. I don’t know who gave it to him or why but from this day forth, I fear my son’s happiest memory of China will be set in the aisle at the far side of the cashiers in IKEA Shanghai. If the look on his face was anything to go by, that memory will be hard to beat.


111 Boxes


The temperature has dropped ten degrees in the last few days. Baby A is cutting molars and his gums look like a war zone. Mr Oh has caught some Chinese version of the Ebola virus and is wracked with fever and inexplicable pains - apparently the worst thing about being sick is my insistence on sticking a thermometer in his ear every ten minutes. I like the beepy noise. He should be glad I’ve chosen technological gadgetry over accuracy when it comes to determining his core body temperature. As the Belgians will tell you, there’s only one way to get a truly accurate reading from a thermometer.

In other news, our shipment arrived. It was a bit of a shock. I had presumed it had sunk (Mr Oh only wished it had). For the last two months we had lived very well without the 111 boxes that arrived in our apartment on Saturday. “I wonder what’s in them all”, I mused as I gazed upon the stacks of unopened boxes that littered our heretofore minimalist abode. “Your crap”, Mr Oh said pointedly. I think his tone was a bit harsh. At least I brought useful things into our marriage - a full set of cutlery and crockery, a dining room table, a bed, a sofa, a tv, a giant bean bag. He brought a guitar and a lifetime supply of cod liver oil.

I have to admit that some of it was unnecessary. An x-ray of my foot, for example, did I think I’d need that in China? {Post-script - Mr Oh has asked me also to mention the Wedgewood pot filled with novelty, flag badge-pins and the set of ornamental granite elephants}. The problem is that my parents don’t want my crap either - they have four children, all of whom have now moved out of the family home while forgetting to bring any of their stuff with them. I think they brought it on themselves - if they wanted an uncluttered house, they shouldn’t have had grandchildren. Poor parents, no sooner had the youngest one moved out, than they had to start filling the house with travel cots, high chairs and prams. In response, they built a gym/shed in the back garden where they go to burn off the stress of not being able to live in a stark and graceful manifestation of Swedish design.

I realized, as we unpacked the boxes, that you could psychoanalyze our personalities on the basis of what we brought to China. I am responsible for the 7 large boxes of effervescent Solpadeine, the 150 doses of Dioralyte and the seemingly endless amount of Motillium. I’m either sickly, hypochondriacal or expecting a lot of hangovers - possibly a mix of all three. Mr Oh brought over six deodorants and at least a gallon of Savlon in three different configurations - liquid, cream and dry spray. Based on this one might conclude that he fears uncleanliness and germs (coincidentally those are two things that China has in abundance). Baby A brought a lot of stuff that he is no longer interested in or no longer fits into. He’s afraid of change.

Despite the piles of unsorted clothes and the question of where we’re going to put everything, unpacking all our not-entirely-necessary stuff has been fun. The one truly useful item I found was our baby carrier which has meant that I can bring Baby A to playschool on my back and no longer feel like the 13 kilo toddler is pulling my spine out through my abdomen. The downside of this is that he gets up to all kinds of stuff back there and I can’t see him (although I do carry a little mirror in my pocket so I can occasionally take a peek). This leaves me very little control over who pokes and prods him or pops walnuts in his mouth. He seems to like it though and generally falls asleep on the bus ride home.

The Chinese on the bus are even less convinced by the wisdom of my parenting choices than they were before. I was standing on the 911 bus yesterday with Baby A on my back in the sling. I was being offered a seat at least every 30 seconds and was trying to explain that I couldn’t really sit down without squashing the baby. There were two OCGs (old Chinese grannies) who were particularly vexed by this arrangement and the conversation went something like this:

OCP1: Here (offering me her seat) - sit down.
Me: No thanks, I can’t sit down.
OCP1: But he’s tired.
Me: Yes, he’s asleep.
OCP1: You must sit down - he’s tired.
Me: I’m not sure I understand.
OCP1: He’s not comfortable.
Me: He’s asleep. He’s comfortable.
OCP2: His socks are too tight.
Me: What??
OCP2: (lifting a limp toddler leg and pinging his socks down to rub a sock band mark) See? Blood problems. His socks are too tight. Not comfortable.
OCP1: (tutting in agreement). Not comfortable.
Me: He’s asleep!
OCP2: You must sit down.
Me: Ok. (Sitting down and perching very uncomfortably at the edge of the seat so as to avoid crushing Baby A’s chest).
OCP1 and OCP2: (simultaneously smiling and nodding). Yes, he’s comfortable now.

An Open Letter to Apple and China

Dear Apple and China,

You seem to be friends. Everywhere I look in China, I see Apple. There are unnecessarily large Apple megastores popping up on every thoroughfare in Shanghai. As we speak, the latest addition is set to open beside my Gucci cornerstore - all glass and chrome and white - not unlike the special place that Superman went to when he wanted to talk to the holograms of his parents. I get it - you’re new best friends. Maybe there’s a bit of romance there but it’s hard to tell - technology companies and communist superpowers are so gender fuzzy.

You know, also, that I am a fan of you both - despite the fact that you’re both overpriced and one of you is dirty (ok, maybe because of it). I don’t mean any disrespect and I don’t want to burst the crazy love bubble you seem to have built around you but am I the only person who sees the fundamental flaw in your relationship? You are not compatible.

China, you don’t really love Apple, not really. If you did, you wouldn’t have designed all your online banking and payments systems to work exclusively with Internet Explorer which, as I’ve just discovered, only functions on PCs. No, China, if you really loved Apple you would not have done that - either to Apple, or to me. I just spent two hours of my precious nap time (the time is mine but the napping is someone else’s) trying to find a way around this. “It can’t be!”, I thought. China wouldn’t have done that to Apple - not with all the megastores and the love and the iMadness. “And”, I further reasoned, “if China had done that to Apple, would Apple not be hurt and withdrawn rather than triumphantly constructing another useless megastore in which you can buy products THAT DON’T WORK IN CHINA!?”.

None of this makes sense, but maybe that’s love.

For my part, I love both of you a little less today than I did yesterday.

Kind regards,

A Former Sine-apple-phile.

PS - Your relationship is doomed.

My Shanghai Morning


Some days in China are weird and cool and randomly bonkers. The rest, though, are just me getting about the day like I would anywhere else in the world albeit with more spitting and debris involved (none of it mine). Some days rock - and some make me want to sit in the storage cupboard and drink gin from the bottle.

This morning, for example, I woke at 6.30 am with a stiff neck from yet another night spent on the sofa bed without any pillows because our shipment hasn’t arrived yet. I considered the chances of getting away with a shower before Baby A woke up demanding things. I also tried to recall when I might last have had a shower…two days ago? Three? This is what they mean by ‘letting oneself go’ perhaps. I tiptoed oh-so-quietly out the door towards the bathroom and just as I reached it, I heard a plaintiff little voice squeak ‘Ma-ma’ over the baby monitor. I think he’s got bat-hearing. I do accept however that it is not socially acceptable to give up showering entirely just because you live in China and can guarantee you won’t bump into anyone you know (because you don’t know anyone) so I brought the monitor into the bathroom and listened to Baby A chat away to himself. I don’t think ‘Ma-ma’ means me anyway - he points at old men on the bus and says ‘Ma-ma’. He picks up dead caterpillars and says ‘Ma-ma’. I’m not sure he has a name for me at all yet - he’s only just realizing that I’m not part of him, like a really big arm.

I popped out of the shower, wrapped myself in my towel, forgetting of course that I had used the same towel yesterday as a makeshift picnic blanket for Baby A and Babybel. There was a dried fusilli poking my belly button and I ended up smelling like an Italian deli rather than the clean-tinged-with-lime-blossom I was aiming for. Baby A thought I smelled nice and spent most of the bus ride into play school licking my shoulder which is a step up from licking the people beside him or, even worse, the window. He also smelled nice having had an emergency bath just twenty minutes earlier. It’s best not to dwell on that part of the day.

The bus itself was a bit surreal. In fact, I wonder if it was originally a bus at all. It had tables inside - old wooden tables screwed into the floor. It also had no roof upstairs. Like one of those open top tour buses. I think someone put the ‘bus’ together from scrap metal, twine and the remnants of an old schoolhouse. The bus driver spent the journey hurling abuse (at least I think it was abuse but you never know in Chinese) at a woman sitting half way back who also seemed to work on the bus in some capacity. Her job appeared to be to shout the name of each stop when we arrived at it. That would seem acceptable enough were it not for the fact that the bus had a automated PA system installed which also announced the name of the approaching stop. Bus worker lady made it a point to shout louder than the disembodied voice that was trying to do her out of a job. It was a stark, if noisy and slightly odd, representation of the struggle of the human worker to remain relevant in the face of increasing technological advancements.

After dropping Baby A at playschool, I had to catch two metros downtown for a bank appointment which would hopefully allow me access to online banking. I say downtown but, in fact, Shanghai downtown is an area about the size of Ulster so downtown could be anywhere really. This was, I suppose more downtown that the downtown I was in previously so maybe it was rightdowntown or downtown+ or hyper downtown?

As I waited between trains, I caught sight of an ad for something. I’m trying to improve my Chinese reading so rather than glazing over Chinese script, which is the natural reaction to so many squiggles in such a small area, I tried to read it. For once, I actually knew every character in the ad (there were only four so I don’t think I should crack out the champagne just yet). My short-lived chuffedness with self came to an end when I realized that, despite knowing all the characters, I didn’t know what the sign said. The first character was ‘ocean’ 海, the second was ‘horse’
, the third was ‘king’ 王, and the fourth was ‘country’国. Ocean Horse King Country - hmmmmm. I was standing there for quite some time trying to work this out. What’s the point in studying Chinese characters if you don’t know what they mean even when you know what they mean!? Eventually, my finely tuned intellectual powers, in conjunction with the pictures on the ad led me to believe that Ocean Horse was actually Seahorse and then I reckoned King Country was Kingdom. Ta-Da! I have cracked the Chinese language. Seahorse Kingdom - so obvious! Now, if only I could work out what Seahorse Kingdom means. The train came and, as a result, the meaning of Seahorse Kingdom is likely to remain an eternal mystery to me. Maybe it’s a circus show with seahorses. That would not surprise me.

The bank was relatively uneventful. I think it’s a special foreigner bank because people take tickets and queue - there was no pushing or shouting. Also no one spat on the floor. It was barely like being in China at all. I took the opportunity of being hyper downtown to pop into M&S (I never move anywhere that Mr Marks and Mr Spencer have not already installed an outpost) and stock up on random foreigner goodies like chutney, fruity tea and mayo.

Two more metros later and I was back to pick up Baby A. He was wrecked and fell asleep on the bus. I limped home from the bus stop - at a pace a drunken turtle could have bested - with a backpack full of groceries, a sleeping toddler in my arms and a blister on my toe. It was only noon. I was exhausted. I still didn’t know what Seahorse Kingdom means but at least I managed to dodge the drips from the underwear drying out the windows above the pavement. Plus, at no stage did fish guts land on my exposed skin. That’s a winning morning if ever there was one.


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How To Spend Your Cash

You know, one of these days I might wake up in the middle of the night with an inexplicable yet pressing need to buy an overpriced handbag right that minute. These things can happen. They don’t usually happen to me but let’s not rule it out. If this were to happen, if I were to jolt upright in bed at 3am and start shrieking ‘Guuu-cci!’ at the top of my lungs (so desperate and acute would be my yearning), it is reassuring to know that I would be ok. Help would be nearby in the form of my local Gucci cornershop which is open round the clock - 24 hours a day, 7 days a week - to cater to all my emergency designer needs. The Chinese Super Rich (they’re a thing - like D4 x 100 to the power of Kanye) really do have more money than sense.

I can’t imagine why one would need a 24 hour Gucci on-hand but clearly there’s a market for it or it wouldn’t exist. Too much alcohol, too many raised emotions, not enough sobering daylight - a €3,000 handbag might seem like a cracking idea one pre-dawn Sunday morning. Needless to say, the presence of such a neighborhood facility was not a deciding factor for us when choosing an apartment. There’s a dumpling bar beside Gucci and I really hope that it’s 24 hour too because I think I’m much more likely to wake up craving pork than bling.

There’s a lot of cash floating around Shanghai and the Chinese are coming up with increasingly more inventive ways to spend it. Shark fin soup is one example. Shark fin doesn’t really taste of anything. It’s kind of ribby, like the inside of a satsuma but fairly tasteless. The Chinese like it because it’s expensive. To kill (or as good as kill) an entire shark just for one tiny, rubbery fin…it is the epitome of decadence. They’ve been doing it for years and the price of shark fin is going up as the number of sharks go down which makes it even more desirable. It’s like the Gucci handbag of soups - tasteless and overpriced.

Sharkfin soup has a long history in China going back to the Ming Dynasty. It’s not very popular with the animal rights peoples because the process involves hunting down a shark, cutting off its fin while its still alive and dumping the rest of the shark back in the water where it’s rendered fairly immobile and dies shortly thereafter. The Chinese say western objections to shark fin soup are Sinophobic and disrespectful to their culture and tradition. I’m not an animal rights person so I have no great thoughts on the cruel vs tradition argument but it just strikes me as bad home economics. It’s so wasteful. Does shark meat taste nice? Could we not keep it and serve seared shark steaks along with salsa verde and a nice pinot grigio?

Shark fin soup is nothing new but the rise of the Chinese elite means that it’s more in demand than ever. Despite the price, there’s only so much shark fin you can eat and really, I would think, only so many designer handbags you can own (maybe not? handbags aren’t really my thing). The Chinese also like to spend lots of money on weddings (don’t we all? *sigh*). The hot new thing is to fly to Europe for your pre-wedding photos. You obviously bring your photographer with you from China - no European photographer could grasp the extent of the fantasy-kitsch-melodrama required to execute a truly desirable set of wedding snaps. Bizarrely, Nazi themed wedding photos are en vogue right now - example of good photo in this genre includes bride (in giant flowy white dress) oozing blood from a chest wound as she ‘dies’ in the arms of her improbably Asian Nazi lover who is decked out in full Nazi military regalia against the backdrop of some stately castle in the Swiss alps. Sometimes I feel that the Chinese are an odd sort of people.

Another way to spend your mysteriously obtained cash is the age-old art of pimping your ride. From observing the type of things that try to run me over several times a day, metal vehicles seem to be hot right now. “Is this not just, like, cars without paint?” I hear you ask. No, not quite. More like cars dipped in gold…or silver. They’ve got a very smooth, impossibly shiny almost liquid look to them - like melted aluminum foil. It is possible that they might also protect those inside from alien death rays as well as looking cool and blinding pedestrians on sunny days. If metal SUVs aren’t your thing, you can also get your paintwork personalized. I saw a Mini the other day with the words ‘Fen Fen loves Ricky’ inscribed within a big pink love heart on the back passenger door. I sure hope ‘Ricky’ doesn’t spook easily.

Although an increasing number of Chinese seem to have an alarming amount of money, most Chinese are still not wealthy. They tend to be the ones we meet most. I’ll tell you about them next time. I’m aware that in the last few entries, I’ve mostly written about the weird, the bad and the ugly in China. There’s lots of good too.