The Last Post I'll Ever Write About Goldfish

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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.  


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The Foreigner Must Be Crazy

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I have spent quite a lot of time on this blog outlining the weird and wonderful things that Ayi does.  On the weird side of things we have the daily afternoon showers and the high volume, wordless, tuneless singing she does when she wants to calm Snugglepunk down.  I often think she's just trying to drown out the sound of his crying with her own, similarly screechy, noises. On the wonderful side of things we have ironing.  

It has occurred to me recently, however, that craziness is a two way street.  Ayi thinks that most foreigners are a bit odd but she thinks I - in particular - am as mad as a box of frogs.  Sometimes in my normal day to day existence I catch Ayi looking as me as if to say, what the hell kind of weird shit are you up to now?   Examples include:

1.  Cold Water.  Chinese people drink their water warm or hot.  They do not drink cold water because they 'know' that it is bad for your health.  It probably stems from boiling drinking water first to get rid of germs but somewhere along the line and the message just comes out as 'COLD WATER BAD', particularly for women, and even more particularly for pregnant woman.  During the summer, I'd be standing in the kitchen in the 36 degree heat chugging down a pre-chilled bottle of ice water and Ayi would shake her head at me.  "Baby cold", she would say and walk out of the room as if the sight of me drinking cold water offended her sensibilities.  She wasn't the only one though, I was thrice refused cold water in restaurants by wait staff who were concerned for the health of my unborn child.  If I had been sitting there downing shots of vodka and smoking Double Happiness cigarettes they would have been less horrified.  

2. Bread.  Ayi does not understand bread.  What's to understand?  She isn't against it, she says, she just couldn't eat it every week.  She's also a little bit confused by sandwiches.  The Chinese for sandwich is San-ming-zhi and, as 'San' means three in Chinese, they naturally assume that a San-ming-zhi would have three slices of bread.  Ayi thinks I'm doing it wrong.  

3.  Breastfeeding.  Now I don't think the Irish are in any position to be taking the moral high-ground on breastfeeding as we shamefully have the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world.  But, in China, breastfeeding is solely for very young babies (maybe only in the first few weeks, if at all) and peasants (they have a lot of peasants which is why their breastfeeding rates are quite good).  The day Ayi turned up to be interviewed a year and half ago, I was breastfeeding a feverish, naked 14 month old.  Ayi was genuinely confused as to why I might be doing this given the fact that I could presumably afford both clothes and formula.  I've also realised why Chinese babies are fat.  Every time Snugglepunk cries, Ayi hands him to me and says "Hungry" even if I fed him five minutes ago.  If he was bottlefed, she'd have him on at least 15 bottles a day.  I don't have the heart to tell her that he's not always hungry, he just doesn't like her singing.  

4. Pollution.  It took me a long time to convince Ayi that the air was polluted.  When it's windy and the leaves blow up in the air.  That's pollution in Ayi's head.  It took me months to convince her that if the air was polluted outside that she couldn't take little A down the lobby to play.  Our conversations would go something like this:
  - Me:  The pollution is really bad today, why are you in the lobby. 
- Ayi:  Pollution outside. We play inside. 
- Me: But the lobby door is wide open and the air from outside is coming inside. 
- Ayi: *blinking*
- Me:  ...so the pollution is also coming inside...
- Ayi: I close door.  
- Me: *sigh*. 
At first, Ayi thought this whole pollution thing was just another crazy laowai (foreigner) obsession like wine and seatbelts, but as the pollution situation worsens the Chinese media has started to admit that on really bad days it's not just 'very cloudy'.  Ayi has started to think that maybe pollution is something worth worrying about.  Every day I tell her the Air Quality reading and, if it's high, she likes to ring her husband and shout at him about the pollution - insisting that he keep their young granddaughter indoors. No doubt he now thinks she's crazy. 


5. The Sun.  If you see loads of umbrella's popping up around Shanghai, it's either raining or it's not raining at all.  Chinese people (especially women) fear the sun in the same way that I fear tigers.  They don't want to tan because then they look like peasants (there's an overarching theme here of being seen to be peasanty).  There is an old Chinese story about Yi The Archer shooting down the 9 hot suns in the sky and only leaving one.  I think if Ayi met Yi The Archer she would beat him over the head with his own bow for leaving the last one up there.  She told me last summer that, when picking Little A up from kindergarten, she would take a taxi home on rainy days (fair enough) and also on sunny days (huh?).  She told me that the sun is bad for children and adults alike and neither her nor Little A should be exposed to it.  You'd think I was asking her to drag him home through a haze of toxic gas (oh wait...).  

4. Babywearing.  Despite the fact that the Mei-Tai form of wrap is a traditional Chinese carrier, Chinese people do not carry their babies in slings, at least not in the cities (again...peasanty).  Ayi tells me it's bad for his back, he should be lying down flat.  While she was never totally happy with my slings and carriers, at least most of them had straps, buckles and other things indicating that they were official contraptions of the western people.  She is not keen at all on the new wrap which is just a very long swathe of fabric that I tie around me and Snugglepunk.  I've tried to show her a few times how he can't fall out but she is unconvinced.  Given her lack of faith in the whole wrap thing,  I probably should have waited until she was out of the house before trying to wrap Snugglepunk on my back for the first time.  What started out as a calm and methodical exercise soon deteriorated into chaos.  I lifted Snugglepunk onto my back and started to wrap the fabric around us,  Ayi jumped up and started holding him up by the bum screaming "Wo haipa!” (I'm scared!) repeatedly until Snugglepunk was also screaming and I couldn't get the wrap wrapped around because Ayi was batting it away from the baby and wailing in my ear.  She needed to sit down for 45 minutes after that incident with her head between her legs to recover.  Occasionally she would look at me and shake her head mournfully.  I think I'm breaking her soul.  

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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).

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The Ayi and I


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Phew…8 weeks down…only another 17.85 years to go (I am not open to criticism on the mathematical logic of that - there is no calculator handy). I have it nailed. Mr Oh is out at a work thing. It’s 8pm. Little A is asleep. I have my foot on Snugglepunk’s bouncer and am gently tapping him up and down which seems to be doing the trick. I’ve just finished a delicious four-cheese lasagne. Ok, so I ordered it on Sherpa’s (food delivery service) but you try ordering food online, breastfeeding and singing the Fireman Sam theme-tune simultaneously. I’m feeling very smug.

I have learned a lot from Baby A that I bring to the table with Baby B. The main rule is: never venture so far from home that you cannot walk back within ten minutes. This restricts my movement to a small area of Shanghai - from Xiangyang to Wukang on the horizontal axis and from Yan’an to Fuxing on the vertical. If you happen to be a fellow Shanghai resident who hangs round these parts in the afternoon, look out for me around 3.30 on Wuyuan. I’ve got blue and white striped Skechers, a screaming baby and can frequently be found shouting ‘W-T-F(in-full)’ at passing motorcyclists who mount the pavement and zoom around me.

Ayi and I are firm friends these days. Mostly because I’ve reduced her hours so no longer have to panic daily about how to create enough work for her to prevent that awkward feeling when your ayi sits silently in the corner with her hands in her lap looking into the middle distance. It doesn’t help that I’m married to the only man in the universe who cannot be prevented from cleaning the kitchen. I keep trying to tell him that all his tidying is leaving me with even less work to give Ayi but he gives me that slightly incredulous are-you-actually-giving-out-to-me-for-cleaning look. Despite her slightly odd habits, I’m very fond of her and she’s actually a great help. She also cleans like a demon and is crazy about babies. Most mothers don’t have home help like we do in Shanghai. I won’t when we go home. That frightens me slightly. How do people do it? I ask myself this a lot. I must be asking it out loud too because as another mother pointed out to me this week:
1. Mothers in Europe do not have to test their children for lead poisoning (not sure how this relates to having an ayi);
2. Mothers in Europe can have double strollers (I can barely wedge one pram through the ubiquitous bamboo scaffolding, shimmy over drains, bump up/down steps etc). I had to walk into the traffic with the pram no less than six times this afternoon because the pavement was blocked by random debris.
3. Mothers in Europe do not have to leave their babies at home when they run errands due to the fact that the air is toxic. I tried to put a particle filter mask on Snugglepunk today when we went outside but he wasn’t too keen so we had to go back indoors. The fact that I had to try to put a particle filter mask on an 8 week old makes me deeply unhappy. If there’s one thing I hate about Shanghai, it’s the air pollution. I hate it more than the spitting, and I really hate the spitting.
4. Mothers in Europe have parks and other places that they can bring their kids to run around and burn off energy. We have the driveway of our apartment building with cars driving in and out and a mosquito infested pond full of carnivorous turtles and floating fish carcasses.

Do I think Mothers in Europe have it easier than European Mothers in Shanghai? No. We definitely have it easier in many ways - being able to afford to pay someone to do your ironing is wonderful, access to affordable childcare is great (bearing in mind that it’s not necessarily the same standard of childcare that you would expect in Europe). We might have it easier, but we also have it scarier. Shanghai is, at times, a frightening place to raise children. Taxis don’t have seat belts (technically, they all have them but they’re often hidden under the seat), a green man does not mean you can cross the road without a car hurtling towards you, a pedestrian crossing means nothing, toys can be toxic, clothes can be flammable, food is - at best - an unknown quantity, the air is unhealthy bordering on dangerous…how does that all stack up against an ironing-free life? This isn’t a complaint, it’s just an observation. As my father would say, “The price…is the price.” (He said this in a conversation specifically relating to house-hunting but I think it has wider metaphysical appeal).

Back to Ayi. These days, we’re doing well. I’m no longer scared of asking her to do things. Yesterday, I asked her to peel and cut the vegetables for dinner. It was amazing - like I got all the fun (and kudos) of cooking without any of the real work. She also cleaned up after me. My new found comfort with Ayi has nothing to do with my own increased assertiveness and everything to do with breastfeeding. I mostly only give Ayi instructions when I’m breastfeeding - I feel like it gives me some kind of moral high ground - like my primal obligations supersede the need to peel a pumpkin. “Look at me, I’m nourishing the newly born…can you please iron these shirts?”

Ayi is also delighted with the new vibe. In the afternoon, when we all go outside to play in the driveway beside the fish pond/graveyard, I run around after Little A like a frazzled lunatic. Meanwhile, Ayi sits serenely on a bench holding court with the other ayis while Snugglepunk dozes lazily in her arms. She parades him around the apartment complex, batting away people who get too close to him and proudly detailing his many positive attributes i.e. his chubbiness, fulsome head of hair and pale complexion.

In her free time, she likes to berate me for being too soft on people (I presume she means people other than her). For example, the building maintenance man told me that he couldn’t fix a metal door stop that had snapped off. Ayi called him back up, barked at him for twenty seconds and within the space of a few hours, the impossible-to-fix doorstop was magically replaced. Thus followed a lecture from Ayi that went a little like this:
Ayi: You must learn. You will never survive if you do not learn.
Me: I think I’m surviving ok *looking unsure*
Ayi: You must be firm.
Me: Ok.
Ayi: When someone says ‘I cannot’…you say ‘You will do as I demand’.
Me: Ok.
Ayi: You must be assertive. You must take control. Maybe you need to shout a little bit.
Me: Isn’t that what I have you for?
Ayi: Otherwise they will walk all over you.
Me: Ok.
Ayi: Now, I will take the baby and you will cook dinner.
Me: Ok.

It works much better like this.


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Tai-Tai Lifestyle

I have long aspired to be a Tai-tai. In Chinese, it means ‘wife’ but it’s so much more than that. It’s margaritas at lunchtime, having people to clean your house and watch your children. It’s Gucci and glamour. It’s my destiny.

I’ve waited a long time to be a Tai-tai. I ruined my chances the whole first year in China by studying. Schlepping a toddler and a backpack full of textbooks across town on a bus and spending the rest of the day sitting in a classroom that smells of cigarettes and pee is not a very Tai-tai vibe. Tai-tais don’t schlep. They don’t study (they do seem to make an exception for Chinese calligraphy classes) and they definitely don’t wear backpacks (Gucci doesn’t make backpacks).

Now I’m free of my educational obligations, the gate to Tai-taidom beckons. I have an ayi - Ayi - who cleans my house which is just as well because I can no longer see the floor nevermind pick things up from it. My lunches are sadly margarita-free but that can’t be helped either. I don’t have a car and/or driver (although I’m not sure what one would do with a driver but no car) so that’s not really working in my favour but I am within walking distance of the Gucci store so probably don’t need one anyway. I suddenly have a lot of free time.

It’s lunchtime in Shanghai. Little A is napping. Ayi is taking her daily shower in our bathroom. I
still think this is weird, although at least more understandable in the sweltering heat of summer after she’s been out picking Little A up from kindergarten. It was harder to reconcile myself to the showering during the mild days of spring when she didn’t have to step outside.

Also, she asked me to buy conditioner for her hair last week. Were it not for the fact that at some point over the next few weeks I may need to ring her at 3am and ask her to come in and stay with Little A while I birth Baby B, I would have indicated to her my firm belief that it is not the role of the employer to provide hair product for their employees. As it was, I bought the hair conditioner and kept quiet. I’m not good with confrontation. Plus, I feel bad because I won’t let her turn on the air-con despite the fact that it’s over 30 degrees outside. I’m not sure why I feel bad though because I don’t have the air-con on either and I’m harboring a human hot water bottle under my ribs. Like many Chinese people though, Ayi appears to be totally incapable of dealing with the heat and now I hide from her so I don’t have to listen to her complaining about how she’s too hot all the time. Oh my god, maybe I am a real Tai-tai - I have, after all, spent most of this post bitching about my ayi. She’s now out of the shower and is napping in front of the fan. I don’t feel bad anymore.

I don’t think she resents me for not being able to turn on the air-con. I told her that Mr Oh was the one who put his foot down. I told her about how I couldn’t sleep at night with the heat and despite being almost 9 months pregnant, he still wouldn’t let me turn it on. She feels sorry for me being married to such a despot. I sighed convincingly. The truth is that it’s just too expensive. Our apartment building is linked to a “hotel” out the back so apparently our building is also classified as commercial property and we have to pay for electricity and gas at 3 times the normal rate. I do question this explanation as a) I’ve never seen anyone stay at the “hotel”, b) the “hotel” is not advertised anywhere and doesn’t even have a sign saying it’s a hotel and c) what kind of “hotel” is located down a residential lane and does not have a breakfast buffet. The kind of “hotel” that is not a hotel, that’s what.

Now don’t get confused, I’m not suggesting that the “hotel” is a brothel or anything. I’m not totally obsessed with Chinese prostitution. Plus, this is a decent family neighborhood. I’m just suggesting that it’s not a hotel and that it’s no coincidence that our apartment building, having almost zero Chinese occupants, has to pay higher electricity and gas costs than other residential compounds. Most of the people in our building don’t pay their own bills anyway as it’s usually included in their expat work package…so no one really complains. I’m not complaining either, I’m just refusing to turn on the air-con and blaming my husband so that the ayi - who I’m secretly scared of - doesn’t hate me. That’s normal, right?

So now it’s almost 2pm. The temperature outside has hit 36 degrees. The pollution level is up to “unhealthy”. I’m starting to get windburn on one side of my face from the fan. Little A and Ayi are fast asleep. My feet are swollen. My hair is sweating. The Unbornicle has the hiccups and with every ‘hic’ I feel a little bit nauseous. This Tai-tai lark is not all it’s cracked up to be. Where are my glamourous lunches? My cocktails? Where is my Gucci?

Fortunately, in 1-20 days, my Tai-tai life will come to an abrupt end. I will throw off the chains of leisure and morph dramatically into a “stay-at-home-mom” which is good because stay-at-home-moms don’t have to brush their hair and the lunchtime margaritas are optional.




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Culture Shock

PA285676 - Version 2
Our ayi, Ayi, has been with us for about two months now and, despite my initial reservations, it’s going swimmingly. She’s as mad as a box of frogs, though, and stomps around the house with Little A - the two of them singing loud, tuneless la-la-la songs together in unison. Sometimes, I swear, they do harmonies. They also have loud and ear piercing squabbles (I think the squabbling is mostly on her side as Little A’s only word is ‘dog’). As I sit in my study learning how to write ‘terracotta warriors’ in Chinese (honestly, the vocabulary in my textbook is so random sometimes) I can hear Ayi wail at Little A. This is followed by a thud as, I can only presume, his sippy cup hits either a) the wall or b) her head. They’re both screaming at this stage. I can’t go out and check on what’s happening because she has banned me from coming out of my study after he wakes up from his nap. I had this idea that I could pop in and out of my study throughout the afternoon bestowing kisses on Little A and sweeping into his room for a guerrilla play session before retreating back to my books. Sadly, toddlers don’t work like that and Little A is happiest if he doesn’t catch sight of me until I’m ready to give him my full focus for the rest of the day.

For the last month, I’ve been studying Chinese full-time. Four hours of classes in the morning and another 3-4 hours of study in the afternoons. It’s intense but I really love it and I can feel my Chinese improving by the day. In the beginning, Ayi and I spoke a mix of Chinese and English. Now, we speak 95% in Chinese. Ayi has become like my China-living-guru. Every day I proudly show her something that I’ve managed to buy in China - dried apricots from the Uighur vendors that come into town occasionally, a kilo of tangerines, a knock-off Gap jumper, a Christmas tree - normally when I tell her how much I paid for the item in question she starts shaking her head slowly. “No good” she says and tells me how much I should have paid for it (which is usually about half of what I did). Every once in a while she gives a satisfactory nod and tells me that my product is ‘hao tejia’ (a good deal). Once I bought a bag of raisins that were so ‘hao tejia’ that she asked me to buy one for her too. I was extremely proud of my bargain hunting prowess which is to the Chinese what barefoot wildebeest stalking is to the Masai. These special moments are infrequent but deeply satisfying.

While we have been getting on well, that is not to say that the new arrangement has not required a bit of adjustment and a recalibration of cultural expectations. Ayi, like most Chinese, likes a good nap. The first time I saw her lying prone on our sofa wrapped up in my pure wool Foxford blanket with a cushion over her face, I was quite taken aback. If I am totally honest, I was a little bit indignant. Why is she sleeping in my living room in the middle of the day? How is this ok? In China, though, it’s perfectly acceptable to sleep anywhere. Little A was napping, she had already ironed all Mr Oh’s shirts and made enough dumplings to feed all twelve of the people she clearly thinks live in our house - so why shouldn’t she catch forty winks? I could actually find no valid reason for my objection to her siesta other than the fact that it’s just not the kind of thing we do. Fortunately, I don’t know how to say that in Chinese. Now I’ve become accustomed to her gently snoring presence in my living room and no longer find it quite as bizarre as I once did.

I thought that when I got used to the midday napping that I could no longer be thrown by Ayi’s bizarre cultural habits. Not so. I remember the day she came in to me as I was reading a very boring text describing what happens in a teahouse in Guangdong (not much, in case you were wondering) and told me that, from that day forth, she would be showering in the afternoon…in our shower. I was truly baffled and I think the first thing I said was ‘Why?’. She seemed slightly put out by my questioning of her motives and said “because I need to change clothes”. This hardly clarified matters for me and I stared aghast at her as she picked a towel out of my linen cupboard, asked me to buy more shampoo and toddled off for a refreshing 2pm hose-down. I was actually, at that moment, prepared to tell her that I didn’t feel she was a ‘good fit for our family’ (this is the vocabulary of cross-cultural domestic employment). Again, I wasn’t quite sure what it was about her showering that really annoyed me. It wasn’t that she was slacking in her work otherwise. It wasn’t that I felt she was taking advantage of us. It just felt so very inappropriate - like a violation of our boundaries, our privacy. For me, it was like she had told me that she was going to start wearing my socks. Actually, she was using my flip flops for her showers so it really was like she was wearing my socks.

After raising this issue with various foreign friends and finding their response to be unanimously a kind of blasé “Oh yeah, that’s normal” I slowly became less freaked out by the showering. Apparently Chinese homes often don’t have very comfortable showers in the winter. They may not have hot water or at least not very hot water. Our bathroom is so badly insulated and baltic that I reckon Ayi’s own shower must be really awful for her to resort to seeking comfort in, what I think, is a little mini igloo with its own polar wind tunnel. Once I established the existence of a vaguely genuine reason that she may prefer to shower in our place and further discovered that it’s quite common and she’s not just taking the piss, I’ve become okay with it. I’m not great with it - I still think it’s weird and I’m not 100% comfortable but I’m willing to live with it. She makes really good dumplings, Little A likes her and she shouts at repairmen on my behalf (she instructs me to stand menacingly at her side looking displeased while she berates them). I’ve hidden my flip flops under the bed though - that really is like wearing my socks and I haven’t been in China long enough to be okay with that.

[By the way, in case anyone was wondering, the air quality is no longer immediately and enormously hazardous and has gone back to being just plain old bad. We’re very relieved!]
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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: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2008_Chinese_milk_scandal. 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.
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