I'm just going to get the bad news out of the way at the beginning...Orange and Other Orange are dead. They were as happy as two fish in a giant blue-lit filtered tank when we left for the summer. Mr Oh also did a stellar job at remembering to feed them occasionally when he was in Shanghai on his own. When he was due to join us in Ireland, he brought the fish into his office where they died. I don't blame them. Offices are no place for fish (or people really). Whenever I used to go into the office every day, sometimes I felt a bit green around the gills too. I didn't die though...I just had a string of children, moved to Shanghai and refused to go back. If only that option were available to pet goldfish.
Orange died first. I didn't ask how but I know that he made at least one attempt at fish suicide before his eventual demise. Other Orange did make it back to us at the end of the summer, but he didn't look great and it was clear that his time on earth was limited. Little A was delighted to be reunited with Other Orange and did ask me a few times where Orange was (actually he calls all fish that are not the one he is looking at at that particular moment 'Other Orange'). I dealt with this skillfully by looking at the ceiling and saying something reassuring like "Oh, you know...here and there..".
Then one morning, Other Orange was gone too. Mr Oh got up early and disposed of his body. That morning, Little A stood on his small giraffe stool, staring into the empty bowl from a variety of angles, as if Other Orange might be wedged under a pebble. "Where has Orange gone?", he asked (still flexible with the goldfish names). I took an executive decision that this would be a good time to discuss death with the 3-year-old. I think the clearer and more forthright we are about these issues the better. I looked Little A in the eye and I said, "Other Orange died". Little A looked at me for a long time with what I recognised as his thinking-hard-face (eyebrows scrunched, mouth slightly open, head cocked slightly to one side). I stood panicked in front of him - a million thoughts and regrets running through my head. Do we discuss heaven? Should I tell him that Daddy threw Orange in the black bin out the back? What if he cries? What if I cry? What have I done? Can I run away now? etc etc.
Little A looked at me and said "Where did Orange dive to?". A big wave of relief washed over me. The universe was giving me a life raft and I was going to take it. "Ehm...the ocean", I said with my best knowledgable look (which is not be confused with my making-it-up-as-I-go-along-look, to which it bears a startling similarity). "Like Nemo?", Little A asked. "Yes", I responded, "Just like Nemo."
"Oh", Little A said, apparently satisfied. "Orange has gone to play with Nemo and Nemo's Daddy in the ocean". I nodded persuasively.
"I want to buy a new fish", Little A announced. I was still nodding.
That afternoon, I set off across Shanghai with Snugglepunk, Little A and Ayi on a fish buying expedition. I had to buy more fish before Little A starting poking holes in my ocean diving story. The place one buys goldfish in this part of Shanghai is the Flower, Bird, Fish and Cockroach market. I don't think that's its official name, but it should be. It's an airless, windowless maze of tiny ramshackle stalls heaving with various things that move and swim and squelch and slither. The floor is slimey and it's best not to look down generally. Also best not to wear flip-flops but I'll know that for next time. With Snugglepunk on my hip and clutching Little A's hand in a vice-like grip to stop him running off to pet an iguana, we inched our way along the narrow alleys - Ayi leading the way, Little A trying to break free from me and me trying not to think about what just touched my foot. Snugglepunk was sitting happily aloft having a good look around and saying 'F-f-f-f' every time he saw a fish, which was every half a second.
Once we located goldfish corner, Ayi turned to me and said "No talking". I nodded and whispered "get 4 fish". Ayi then commenced to shout and point while I pleaded with Little A not to touch anything, not the floor, not the insects, not the slime covered fish tanks, not the birds, nothing. All I wanted was to get out of there with a few fish and no microbes of mutated tropical disease clinging to my children. We came home with 8 fish, 3 kg of gravel and big, pink plastic plant. I'm still not sure about the microbes.
We didn’t really get very imaginative with the fish naming. One was called Orange, one called Little Orange, then there was Other Orange 1, Other Orange 2, Other Orange 3, Black Fish (who was not orange) and Burt Reynolds.
The fish have not fared terribly well. One jumped out the first night. I found his lifeless fish-corpse lying on the floor in front of the tank. Mr Oh disposed of the body. Another was found floating in the top of the tank several days later. Mr Oh is a very good sport about his unsolicited role as fish undertaker. Things seemed ok for a few weeks and then I noticed that the fish all seemed to be infected with some kind of fungus that causes their fins to rot and open sores to appear on their body. I bought fish medicine but, alas, no amount of modern medicine could help those poor fish. One more died last night and Mr Oh bludgeoned another to death this morning to put him out of his misery. We're down to four fish and one of them has an ulcer on his head so I imagine he's next. It's become a real problem because although Little A's counting skills are rudimentary (he just counts the fish every time he sees them so at one point he thought there were 23 fish in the tank which, incidentally, is as high as he can count), even he will notice when we're down to three fish.
I need to source disease-free fish in China. I think online might be the answer. I am certainly not going back to the cusp of creepy-crawlie hell that is the slime market. I might try Taobao. I didn't think live fish was the kind of thing you would be able to buy online and have delivered but then I remembered that this is China...everything can be bought online and delivered. Even a live fox (see below, poor fox looks none too happy about finding itself in the online Chinese marketplace).
I should really just abandon my dreams of having a fish-filled house and just stop buying fish but the boys love them...and i have the stupid tank now. I promise I'm going to stop writing about goldfish soon.
Wednesday, 02 September 2015
I started writing my blog after the summer hiatus at the start of September. For me, my blog has always been a break from reality. No matter what's going on in the world or in my own life, I can always see the funny side of day-to-day life. For the first time in my life, I'm finding it hard to write about my own life without mentioning an issue which occupies much of my waking and sleeping thoughts...without feeling like it's slightly obscene that I might even make light of a daily situation while there is so much pain around us.
I'm also aware that, every minute of our lives, various horrors of which we are unaware are taking place across the globe. But this is one of which we are partially aware and I, for one, cannot get it out of my head....the situation of refugees from Syria (in particular, but not exclusively) trying to enter Europe.
When I was young and as idealistic as I was ever likely to be, I used to say that there was no such thing as an 'economic migrant', which was a popular phrase at the time. I was able, at that age, to imagine what it would feel like to uproot your whole family and move, without finance or security, to an entirely strange country, hoping for a better life. I had enormous respect for their bravery. I thought that the term 'economic migrant' did them an injustice, depicting them as vultures who preyed upon the taxes of others as opposed to human beings in need.
But somehow, over time, as I got older, I got used to closing my eyes, because it was easier...because I found looking too painful. I still find looking too painful. There's a man who sits on the side of the road near my home in Shanghai...he sits with a baby in a type of pram, who always seems to be screaming. I know the baby is deformed in some way...but I can't look...I've never looked so I don't know what's wrong with the baby. If I look, I know I'll be haunted by the image for weeks, maybe months or years. If I look, I'll give them all the money in my wallet, and more. But I'd be happy to do that if I thought that child would get the money...but I've seen the beggar-bosses swoop down and take the earnings of maimed children so many times in the past... I don't want to feed into it...but I want to help...but I know that, as I foreigner, I can't. It's paralyzing and horrific and the only thing I seem to be able to do is look away and burn with shame.
So, when I read and see the stories of families struggling to make their way to the EU and dying in the process, my instinct is to let it run over me...as if I were waterproof...as if it didn't exist...because I know that I can't actually process that kind of horror. I've gotten so accustomed to letting news stories wash over me while accepting only a brief dash of outrage or pathos..enough to make me feel human, like I'm an active and involved citizen-person...before I move on with my life.
But now - and maybe shockingly, only now - I can't get past it. I imagine my baby boys crying for me if I were taken from them. I imagine them having to crawl through barbed wire. I imagine them suffocating in the back of freight lorries. I imagine their small, pale bodies washing up on beaches.
It might sound terribly dramatic - and I wish so very much that this were not the reality for so many families right now - but that would be a different level of delusion entirely.
As a mother, I know, for a fact, that you do not take your children on broke-down boat heading for Europe unless the alternative is worse than a fairly strong chance of death. I cannot imagine having to make that decision, to take that step. I try to imagine what must have lain behind them to make any human take that risk...I can't.
And yet, despite their bravery, despite the horrors that drove them to us...we turn away. I turn away. It's something for governments to deal with, I can't do anything.
I do understand the pressures of migration. I do understand the fine balance. I do understand the needs of societies to instill continuity and security. I do understand the pressure on public services.
I know it's going to be hard but I am going to look. All those images I make my eyes blur over because I know they're going to upset me, I'm going to look at them. I have no answers. I have no magical solution. But, for me, the first step is just to look and not turn away.
These people are people. They're my sons, my babies. They're me.
[At the end of this, I still can’t tell you about the photo that broke my heart. And I can’t post it. Because I still can’t look at it. Even though I said I would look, I still can’t look for very long]
Wednesday, 02 September 2015 Filed in: Snugglepunk | Little A | Dublin | Shanghai | Mr Oh | Travel
And...we're back! We've all returned to Shanghai - Little A has returned to school - I've returned to checking the air quality every hour, retching on the street (the sound of spitting does it to me) and screaming "Don't touch that!" at least five times an hour. Summer is officially over!
When I first arrived here, I heard about the total mass exodus of expats from Shanghai during the summer. If you're foreign, have children and are able to - you leave - for months if you can. It all sounds a bit decadent at first but after I did Summer 2014 in Shanghai, I swore never again. It's 40 degrees, 100% humidity, the pollution sticks to the sweat in your hair, there are still no parks, the schools are closed, everyone is gone. In summer, the Chinese to French person ratio in my neighborhood skyrockets and the sock-less Vespa riders disappear from the roads. So, this year, we left too.
The prospect of two months of clean air made me happy to unprecedented proportions. So much so that I was willing to do that journey again - you know the day-time one that I do on my own with the two boys that lasts 13 hours and then the Heathrow transfer and then another hour long flight? Yeah, that one. Mr Oh looked a bit terrified for me as he waved goodbye to us at the airport. He was following us a month later. No, I didn't feel sorry for him. He had a month of partying, fabulous dinners, lie-ins and lazy weekends to look forward to. I had a month of laundry, and solo-parenting ahead of me, plus that awful journey. In reality, he appeared to do rather little partying and spent his weekends sitting forlornly on the sofa playing his guitar into the middle-distance.
And the journey was fine. Once you accept that you will spent 13 hours being bitten and crawled upon by a 10 month old, wrangling three people into a dirty plane toilet at regular intervals, bribing an almost 3 year old with snacks and endless TV and trying to stifle the sobs of boredom and frustration that are welling up inside you like a tidal wave of volcanic emotion. Once you make your peace with that - it’s totally doable. It also makes you feel like a superhero (only when it's over though, during the actual journey you will feel like a human dishcloth - damp with sweat, fear, breastmilk and the various bodily fluids of your small children).
If anyone would like further information on flying solo with young kids, please see my earlier post here.
We had an amazing two months in Dublin, London and the south of France. Snugglepunk crawled on grass for the first time ever. Little A dug potatoes out of the garden and learned that not all dirt contains nuclear waste. We went for walks, ran over sand dunes, swam in the sea (France), paddled in the sea until our feet got headaches (Ireland), climbed walls, visited castles and playgrounds, ate food that was high-quality and healthy (Percy Pigs are made from real fruit juice) and did all the things that we can't do in China. We saw some friends - not as many as we would have liked but Snugglepunk isn't a fan of the car, much like his brother before him (see previous post on baby car-travel trauma).
I even became a Godmother for the first time (Hiya Baby T!) which was amazing. Our boys don't have a lot of experience in churches (they are, however, incredibly well behaved in Buddhist temples). After Baby T's christening, Little A ran up to me, pointed at the altar and said "I want to go up there and sing Let It Go". I said "Let's go light some candles for your great-grandmothers instead who are, at this moment, turning in their graves". Little A said "Ok, that sounds fun." He lit six candles and promptly blew them all out. I had to hold my hand over his mouth as he started to sing Happy Birthday to the lady statue. I looked over at Little A's own Godmother and sighed...she's got her work cut out for her.
Mr Oh joined us in London and we all spend the next 3 weeks jetting around Europe consuming our body weight in ice-cream and raw meat. We were able to travel back together to China although I noted that Mr Oh brought his book with him on the plane which I thought was hilarious.
So 7 weeks later, here we are. Back again. On return, we spent 7 full days tortured by jet-lag and children who tag-teamed night time waking so that I never got any sleep. Just when I thought they’d fetch a good price on Taobao, they all started sleeping again and I got bronchitis. Ah China bronchitis...it's good to be home.
Footnote: The title photo appears courtesy of the London Massive (i.e. my bro and sister-in-law). It’s not really courtesy of them because I haven’t asked them if I can use it yet. In fact, I only realized they probably took the photo when I noticed that it appeared strangely unwarped - which is unheard of in any panoramic iPhone shot that either me or Mr Oh have attempted. Our panoramas look like a bad dream. The London Massive, however, know how to work their iPhones - this is how we know it was them.
The photo itself was taken at Uisneach, the sacred and mythological centre of Ireland. We spent a morning on this hill looking at bulls and sacrificing our hangovers to the ancient gods of Ireland. (The hangovers were courtesy of my cousin Jude and her new husband Trevor who had the most amazing wedding in a field…as you do).