Signs That You're An Expat In China

(...on the off-chance you hadn’t noticed)

1.  You need to turn on an invisibility cloak (VPN) when attempting to access the internet.  The internet then thinks you're in Wisconsin and gives you all prices in dollars.

2. You are counted among the 0.001% of iPhone users who actually use Apple Maps over Google Maps because Google and China are fighting about something.  You wish they'd make up.  

3. You paid €15,000 to have your baby in an international hospital.  You were slightly disappointed when the baby did not arrive encrusted in diamonds.

4. You wash a carrot four times, after peeling it and before cooking it.  You still spend much of dinner-time thinking the carrot might be toxic.  

5. You have been asked by total strangers how much your rent is.  Sign that you've lived in China too long:  you tell them.  

6. You always put socks on your baby...even when it's 30 degrees outside.  Because listening to the Chinese grannies telling you your baby's feet are cold is just - so - not - worth - it.  

7. Everything you buy is imported, even though it's made in China.  

8. You hide your stroller behind a tree when trying to hail a taxi because you know they won't stop otherwise.
9. You use your umbrella mainly to take angry swipes at cars that almost run you down.  

10. You see the Avocado Lady more often than you see your husband.  

11. Your 3 year old has a heightened sense of danger.  You cannot decide whether this is a good thing or not.  

12. While you insisted on Swedish rear-facing carseats for your children when you lived in you just hold them on your lap as your rickety taxi careens through downtown traffic and you slide back and forth along the slightly slimey back seat.  You pretend you're ok with this but inside you're weeping.  

13. You get extremely excited whenever a taxi has seatbelts.  The excitement dissipates after you touch them.  Thankfully, you always carry hand sanitizer.

14. When outside your apartment, 90% of what you say to your children is 'DON'T TOUCH THAT!'.  

15. You have to take out a bank loan to buy cheese.

16. You make your own yoghurt.  All your friends make their own yoghurt.  You talk about yoghurt a lot.

17. The most expensive things in your apartment are the air purifiers.

18. WeChat is your most utilized app.  Facebook is mafan (see no. 20) and Whatsapp is nowt but a poor man’s WeChat.

19. You think the lead levels of your bath water are an acceptable conversation topic for a dinner party.  The other people at the dinner party think so too.

20. Your English has become infiltrated by a smattering of Chinese.  


- I'm not making dinner tonight - too mafan (troublesome).  We're all having toast.

- Me (to Little A): Stop giving me mafan and get into the bath.
- Little A:  The chongzis (insect) are biting me!
- Me:  Well get over here and put on some wenxiang (insect repellent) then.
- Me:  We're going outside now to play with your pengyous (friend).
- Little A:  Mei you pengyous - no one's outside yet.  

- Me:  I need Jiu (alcohol)
- Mr Oh: What kind of Jiu do you need?  
- Me: Eh...Putao Jiu (wine), Pi Jiu (beer), Bai Jiu (Baijiu)…any kind of Jiu really. Not fussy.


The "School Trip"

1. I know I swore I'd never write about anything pertaining to goldfish again but, as I'm discovering, goldfish are to young children what fixie bikes are to hipsters.  
2.  A flurry of white feathers just fluttered down outside my living room window.  If I lived in a different country, I might investigate but as I live in China, I think it's best not to.  Also, set to the background sound of the soprano practising her aria across the road in the Shanghai Conservatory of Music...the moment was quite dramatic, and weird.  

So, last week I received an email from Little A's school informing me of the upcoming school trip and inviting me to attend.  As is normal with Little A's school, the information provided was minimal.  They would be going somewhere with "rollercoasters, water-rafting, gold-fishing and vegetable-picking".  The thought of a clutch of 3-year-olds on rollercoasters and rafts in China (the 'in China' bit is important) set my A-dar blasting. (A-dar is the implant in my head that senses when Little A should not be doing something).  

The school, while encouraging parents to go, weren't too happy about me bringing Snugglepunk along as well.  They suggested I leave him at home (strapped into his highchair for the day with a supply of rice crackers perhaps?) and told me that it was too dangerous for a 1 year old (but not apparently for 3 year olds who are famous for being significantly more mature and world-wise than 1 year olds).   It's not that I particularly fancied the idea of juggling two small children for the day, one of whom likes eating rubbish and the other who likes picking sticks off the ground and swishing them around in the faces of other young children while shouting 'I'm a pirate, hearties".   But,  I didn't want Little A to miss out on whatever it was that was happening and I certainly was not going to let him go under the supervision of the school which is well-meaning but generally chaotic and disorganised.  

So, yesterday Little A, Snugglepunk and I set off on the school trip with two bags, one pram, two slings, two packets of baby wipes and about 300 rice cakes.  It is impossible to have too many rice cakes.  

Little A goes to an "international" school but it seems to be 90% Chinese.   It's also supposed to be bilingual but I think it's bilingual in the way that all the Chinese kids speak Chinese and all the English speaking kids speak English and I don't sense a whole load of crossover.  Little A never speaks Chinese in front of me so I’m never too clear how much he actually speaks and understands…more than me probably.

We took a tour bus an hour north of Shanghai which wasn't actually an hour north of Shanghai at all because it was still perhaps better to say an hour north of my Shanghai.  I had very little idea of what kind of place we were visiting, so at least my expectations were low.  I had been on enough school trips with Little A to know that we needed to pack a lot of food.  The school provided Little A with a "packed lunch" consisting rather randomly of two bottles of water, a banana, four mini "croissants" (i.e. bread rolls shaped like croissants) and two bread rolls shaped like bread rolls.  I seem to use an inordinate amount of "quotation marks" when writing about China - maybe because things are often claimed to be things that we later find out are not the things they claim to be at all - if you get me.   Little A and Snugglepunk had polished off the bread roll extravaganza before we even arrived so it's just as well I had also packed three tupperware boxes of sausage pasta, apples, juice and the 300 rice cakes.  Small boys are hungry - I know this from experience.

We arrived at what seemed to be some kind of park.  It was immediately clear that it was a very Chinese destination i.e. it was packed full of people and the bins were overflowing at 10am.  The first mass activity of the day was a trip to the toilet (this is, after all, a class full of 3 year olds).  The toilet was a ceramic trench with small dividers along the wall.  There was no flushing, no water, no doors, no toilet paper.  I've spent time in China so I was vaguely ok with this and knew that it was best not to dwell on it, not to breathe and not to touch anything.   I'm seasoned at the way of the squat trench.  Little A however was having none of it and refused to step near the trench.  "I don't want to fall in", he said wisely and went outside to find a less offensive tree upon which to relieve himself.  I made a mental note not to drink water again for the rest of the day.  

The whole thing was a bit mental.  There was a lady with a microphone and whistle whose job appeared to be to corral us like cattle.  She also had a faded red flag raised high in the air that we were supposed to follow through the crowds of people and children all in their own groups, with their own red flags that looked entirely identical to our red flag.   Every time we weren't doing what we should, she would start piping on her whistle and rabbiting down the microphone in Chinese.  She was Captain Von Trapp in the squat body of a middle-aged Chinese tour guide, with a voice like a round-saw cutting metal.   

The first "activity" (I'm starting to think I should just put quotation marks around the whole entry), was the "playground"  which was, in fact a dated and decrepit amusement park.  We had a jolly little ride on a squeaky train before Little A spotted a large swinging pirate ship and demanded that we go on it.  I looked at the swarming mass of Chinese tweens pushing and clambering to get on the ride, which looked a bit rusty and didn't appear to have restraints and tried to jolly him off in the other direction.  The only other rides were a spinning one with water guns and bumper cars.  Little A took one look at the cars and said "I wanna drive car!".  I thought "Well, that's not possible, he's only 3...surely he wouldn't be allowed on the bumper cars" but, you know, it's China so I don't know why I thought that, of course 3 year olds can go on the bumper cars!  In fact, it turns out that 1 year olds are also allowed on them but some maternal instinct at the back of my spine must have kicked in because I decided that Snugglepunk was a tad too young to be bashed around in an electrified vehicle.  My Chinese friend Kitty offered to take Aodhan on the bumper cars.  While he was at first delighted, his joy turned to horror as he realised that the cars were crashing into each other and he started to get panicked.  Kitty, however, managed to drive around the little bumper car arena in smooth circles avoiding all other cars and people while Little A sat frozen in terror beside her.  

Thankfully, activity 1 was now over.  Activity 2 was a "boat" ride.  The "boat" was a series of bamboo poles tied together with benches strapped on top.  The "life jackets" were pieces of orange material stuffed with something that may or may not have been buoyant.  Apparently they also have no problem with one year olds on floating bamboo rafts although they had neither child nor infant versions of the possibly-though-not-necessarily-buoyant "life-jackets".  Not wanting to be the neurotic foreigner who wouldn't participate, I gingerly stepped onto the raft clutching my two children, and chose a bench towards the back.  Just after I got on, about 6 other families pushed their way onto our raft, including one that wedged themselves onto our bench.  The gondolier-man shouted "too heavy!" so two more men jumped on.  He shouted "too heavy!" again.  I was about to volunteer to get off as the raft started listing precariously to one side and then, Tour Guide Von Trapp herself hopped on, shouted at the man with the pole and off we lurched into the middle of a lake of unknown depth.  I looked down at the bamboo poles that separated us from the water and saw that they were now submerged and water was starting to pool around my shoes.    If I had a picture of my face at that moment, I am entirely sure it would have been ashen.   It's not that I can't swim, I can swim just fine, but the two little boys can't swim and didn't have life jackets, and the raft was slightly submerged with one side rising up out of the water.  I was the only person concerned, apparently, as everyone else was chattering away and Tour Guide Von Trapp blew down on her whistle in a moment of, what seemed from my panic station at the back, to be exuberance and joy.  Snugglepunk started to squeal and try to wriggle out of my arms.  I forced a smile and looked down at Little A beside me.  With my best jolly voice I said, "Isn't this fun?  A boat!".  He looked up weakly and said, "I want to get off".   I nodded, gripped his hand and started trying to remember what I had learned in those two lifesaving classes I did when I was 14.  Thankfully, it was a short boat ride.

Swiftly moving on to Activity  Sorry, "fishing".  Fishing consisted of a series of large plastic tubs filled with water and terrified goldfish around which dozens of crazed children with nets were wedged, frantically trying to, ehm, fish.   When a fish was caught, it was squeezed into a container of some kind, usually a waterbottle the diameter of which was less than the diameter of the fish itself.  Sometimes they didn't bother adding water - it was grim. For proof - see picture below.  I'm not big into animal welfare but even I was slightly horrified.  Even so, I gave Little A a net, squashed him in between some older kids and let him loose, knowing that the freaked out fish were all huddled together in the centre of the tub, beyond the reach of his little arms.  He caught nothing.   Eventually, Tour Guide Von Trapp got on the whistle again and we all assembled under her frayed red flag.  Little A looked around...all the other children had goldfish.  He looked at me plaintively, "Where's my fish?", he wailed. And in a very Augustus Gloop fashion, he threw a net at me, pointed to the tubs and screamed "GET ME A FISH.  NOW!".  My little tyrant - so cute.  
Normally, I would deal with this like a good parent, gently talk to him about his tone and help him deal with and understand his emotions.  But I had been in that godforsaken park for 3 hours, I was sweating, Snugglepunk was screeching for food, i had at least 7 mosquito bites and all my good-parent-motivation was drowned in the lake.  I picked up the net and took myself over to the fish tub.  After a minute of failed fishing, I gave up.  The net was too small, the children were pushing me and the fish were wiley.  Unable to face the prospect of Little A's inevitable meltdown and the ensuing chaos, I looked desperately around for a solution. Kitty pointed to a man with a barrell.  I gave the man 20 kuai (€3) and he gave me a little fish box with a handle and there were 7 little fish inside!  A failure for parenting, perhaps, but a triumphant win for my afternoon sanity.  Predictably, Little A was bored of carrying the fish approximately 3 minutes later so I was left to juggle baby in sling, fish in hand, buggy in other hand and small child trailing behind me whining that he wanted to go home.  

Activity 4 was "peanut picking".  Despite the fact that I had three Epi-pens in my bag, I did not feel like bringing my nut-allergic baby "peanut picking", quotations marks or not.  Instead I spent 45 minutes milling around the rubbish strewn entrance, waiting for the group to finish the final activity and watching my children lick the railings.  

Eventually it was over and we were back on the bus.  Some parents had to take another bathroom break before we got back on the bus.  It had been 4 hours since we had last been to the bathroom but I was holding it in.  Kitty came back looking shell-shocked. She didn't want to speak about it.  And she's Chinese - that's saying something.  

On the bus, Little A turned to me and said. “I had a great time”. Confused I asked, “Did you like the bumper cars?”. “No.”, he said, “They were dangerous”. “Ok, did you like the boat?”, I asked. “No”, he said, “That was dangerous”.

“So, what did you like?”, I asked again. “Mummy came”, he said, before falling asleep against the window. Sniff.

So now we have our four fish, plus the seven from the school trip, two of whom are already dead.  Current fish count: 9.  

Likelihood that I'll never mention fish again in my blog: low.  



The Last Post I'll Ever Write About Goldfish

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 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.  

Pasted Graphic


The Foreigner Must Be Crazy

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: 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.  


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).



I’m back. I’m sorry. Turns out that pregnancy is exhausting. Chinese is exhausting. Toddlers are exhausting. When given the choice between sleep and writing…I chose sleep. Ok, sometimes I chose watching Borgen. After two seasons of Borgen, my Danish vocabulary now includes the words for ‘thank you’, ‘sorry’ and ‘Prime Minister’. I have a long way to go before I’m conversant but the Danes seem to have lovely English so I might just learn the word for ‘bacon’ and leave it at that. I don’t actually know very many Danes and I’ve never been to Denmark so I’m thinking I should probably stick to the Chinese considering the fact that a) the Chinese do not have lovely English and b) I live in China. This may necessitate replacing my new hobby of watching engrossing Danish political dramas with something more conducive to Chinese language learning. Watching Chinese tv perhaps? I could get into a Ming dynasty Chinese soap opera? Or a talent show looking for the voice of Chinese folk singing? They appear to be my only two options.

So, update on life. I am now 33 weeks pregnant and I finished my exams last week. It all got a bit uncomfortable towards the end. Not even stealing the better chairs from neighboring classrooms could make sitting through a 4 hour lecture on Chinese grammar bearable when one’s inner child (actual inner child) is kicking one’s bladder. It also became increasingly difficult to navigate the squat toilets when one’s legs were not capable of lifting both one’s self and one’s inner child back up from the squatting position. A few times I had to hang onto the wall for support and, if we’re honest, the last thing one wants to do in a Chinese university toilet is touch the wall.

The excellent news is that I passed all my exams with flying colours. It’s all a bit suspicious though. I managed to get 95% in my oral exam despite not actually being capable of speaking on my randomly chosen topic (‘the benefits and disadvantages of the internet’) for more than one out of the five allocated minutes. I think, given the Chinese approach to pregnancy, I got 90% just for turning up at the exam in such a clearly advanced state of pro-creation and an extra 5% for saying “Ni hao”.

Whether I deserved it or not, it’s now over and I am positively rolling in free time and unallocated minutes. The only problem is that I’m now almost entirely devoid of energy, mobility and comfort. Also I installed this game on my iPhone called Two Dots. Don’t do it. I haven’t been this addicted to a game since the Angry Birds Christmas Special. I need someone to delete it from my phone and then change my App Store password before I can re-install it (“Mr Oh, this is a hint”).

In other news, as well as an incredibly successful Chinese scholar, online gaming addict and immobile penguin…I am also now a diabetic. It is a well known medical fact (statistically proven) that every time I go for a pre-natal check-up without Mr Oh, they find something wrong. So when I rang him from the hospital telling him that I’d failed my glucose test for gestational diabetes, he actually thought I was just playing a nasty trick on him designed to elicit maximum guilt and sympathy. Even I would not sink that low - well, I would but on this occasion there was no need as I actually did have diabetes and, as my doctor put it, ‘not even the borderline kind’. I failed spectacularly. My body apparently has just given up processing sugar. It now courses wildly through my bloodstream straight into the arteries of my unborn child.

Thankfully, gestational diabetes is both temporary and not really that bad. I have to test my blood sugar levels four times a day and eating has become a complex game of beating the numbers but at least I don’t have to take insulin. I’ve discovered multiple ways to cheat diabetes. For example, I can eat dessert if I slip it into a meal laden with protein and fat e.g. avocado, ice-cream, Babybel. Yum. Spoon of nutella, spoon of cashew butter. Yum-yum. When I finish with the diabetes, I may have coronary heart disease.

Essentially, I’m living off guacamole, natural yoghurt and cheese. There are worse ways to pass a few months. My inability to eat anything other than dairy products and chickpeas has led to a complete cessation of weight-gain. The baby is gaining weight which is good but I’m not which means that the part of my body that will remain part of my body after the baby has exited my body is getting lighter. I was concerned initially that I should surely be gaining some weight in pregnancy but my doctor tactfully reassured me that I put on more than enough weight in the first two trimesters to sustain a litter of baby elephants through the final few months.

So, there you have it. Life update complete. Also I shaved Little A’s head when Mr Oh was having a lie-in one morning. He now looks like a mini Navy Seal. It suits his commando personality. Nice haircuts are for toddlers who don’t pretend to parachute jump off the highest piece of furniture they can find on every given occasion. Nice haircuts are for toddlers who don’t smear mushy be-honied Weetabix on their heads as a primitive signal to their mother that they have finished eating. Nice haircuts are for toddlers who will sit in a chair long enough for their entire head to be evenly cut by a man wielding scissors - toddlers who don’t throw a tantrum halfway through the process and emerge with an asymetrical mop reminiscent of 1980s underground pop culture. Nice haircuts are not for Little A.

The Final Frontier

In 2000, Tom Clancy published his spy thriller The Bear and the Dragon.  It was banned in China - not unreasonably considering Clancy spends much of the novel comparing Chinese people to Klingons.   It was a post-Cold War attempt to reframe the whole good guy / bad guy question.  In this book, the Russians were forgiven and the Chinese were...well, Klingons (when Klingons were bad...i.e. before Worf and Deep Space Nine).   I read The Bear and the Dragon in 2002, when I first came to China and, despite the fact that the book is essentially a borderline racist, scaremongering, fast-paced, indictment of the entire Chinese culture, the concept of the Chinese people as Klingons stuck with me.  Clancy's point, albeit inelegantly made, was that Chinese culture is so foreign to us, the ways of the people so different, their thought processes so incomprehensible...that they might as well be aliens.  The fact that he chose Klingons as the alien race with which to compare them as opposed to say, Vulcans or Bajorans (who are essentially the Canadians of the alien world), is where the racism begins to creep in.  It could have been worse.  He could have compared them to the Borg and had them assimilating everyone in sight (Chinese are not mad about assimilation though so perhaps the Klingons are a better fit).  

When I first lived here, I really did have a problem understanding Chinese people.  It wasn't just a linguistic barrier I faced, but a cultural one.  My very favourite China story of all time is when, back in the bad old days in Wuxi when I was teaching at state-run high school, I decided that my rickety little dorm room with its dodgy electrics and bars on the windows was a bit of a fire trap.  I asked my liaison teacher, Sophia, if she knew where I might procure a fire extinguisher just to give myself a bit of peace of mind.  Sophia seemed a bit confused but said that she would ask The Leaders.  The Leaders were, as far as I could tell, a rarely spotted gang of Party men who sat in leather armchairs smoking cigarettes and running the show/school. Anyway, off Sophia trotted and appeared again a few days later. “I have asked The Leaders about your fire extinguisher”, she said with her very serious, bespectacled face staring blankly ahead (Sophia was very good at staring blankly). There was a long pause as I waited for her to formulate the correct way of breaking the news to me. “The Leaders say” she continued, “in China…there is no fire”. And that was the end of that.

You have to live here a while before you understand how a reasonably intelligent and educated person could look you in the eye and tell you that fire does not exist in China. I haven’t lived here that long, but I’m getting there. Every day I learn something that gives me another insight into the Chinese mentality, their particular way of thinking, their approach to life. This week four things stood out in particular:

1. However
I can’t really say for sure how many words the Eskimos really have for snow but I can tell you that the Irish have more than a few ways of saying, “It’s raining” (bonus points if anyone can count how many). In Chinese, there is no way to say “No”. Instead, there are at least nine ways of saying, “However” (keshi, danshi, que, buguo, ran’er, dao, gu, wunai, zennai). This says a lot about the way Chinese communicate and conversations often take the following lines:

  • (In the fabric market) “We can absolutely make your coat in green material, however, we do not actually have any green material”.

  • (In the days when I was teaching English) “Of course I did my homework, however, I did not write it down”.

  • (In the taxi) Me: “Do you know this addresss?”. Driver: “I know. I know. I know”. (Twenty minutes later). Driver: “Where do I go?”. Me: “I thought you knew the address”. Driver: “I do know the address, however, I do not know how to get there”.

I think of the Chinese language as a sofa that is being delivered to your house. It arrives at the door - a plush velvet sofa with gold embroidery. It is plumped with soft, fluffy filling and, at first glance, looks invitingly soft and comfortable but, as you will soon discover, in the very middle of the plush sofa - right below where you’re about to sit - is a vertically positioned fire poker. The fire poker is the item that is being delivered to your home. Yet for some reason, one that you can’t quite fathom, it needs to be wrapped in a sofa.

2. Might is Right
And nowhere is might more right than on a Chinese road. No matter where you are on a Chinese road the smallest thing on the road, e.g. the toddler, is always the thing that has to give way. The layout, lights and markings may mistakenly lead you to believe that this is not the case but I can assure you, it is. I think someone in the Ministry for Traffic watched a few too many Hollywood movies and thought, “Aren’t those white lines dashing? We should have some of those on Chinese roads.” It’s not the Chinese government’s fault that foreigners mistake these white lines for pedestrian crossings and momentarily presume that the traffic might stop (or even slow down) when they attempt to cross at one. Same goes for the modern art installations at traffic lights that we foreigners frequently confuse for green men. Just because the man is green, it does not mean you have right of way. The bigger thing, the thing made of metal and hurtling towards you…that is the thing that has right of way.

I was walking on the pavement last week. I was walking past the entrance to an office building. As I was half way across the entrance to the office building, a big black car was driving out of the office car park and wished to join the main road. The security guard at the entrance to the office building carpark started blowing his whistle at me (you’re no one in China if you don’t have a whistle) and shouting at me to walk faster to get out of the way of the car that wanted out of the carpark, despite the fact that I, the pedestrian was on the pavement and therefore should have had right of way. God forbid the car (obviously occupied by someone more important than me) should have to slow down for two seconds while I ambled along the pavement. It was at that point where a Chinese word for “No” would have come in particularly handy (or a few other choice phrases that I haven’t yet worked out how to say in Chinese yet). I reacted to this pedestrianism in a very Chinese way - I ignored the whistle-blower and his shouting. I pretended I didn’t hear him. I slowed down a little bit more…and I smiled. I think I’m turning Chinese.

3. You’re All Fabulous
On Friday, I had a four hour spoken Chinese class. As part of the class, we all had to stand up and act out a conversation between a shop assistant and a customer in a clothes shop. We were graded for our efforts. I was a bit stressed - I didn’t want to be awful, get a D and live in shame for the rest of the semester. Imagine my surprise when my group got an A++. Not just one plus, but two! Turns out that there were only four grades given by the teacher for our project…A, A+, A++ and A+++.

I’m actually not sure whether this is a reflection of Chinese society though (I just wanted you all to know that I got an A++). I think it’s much more likely that my entire class is just amazing at Chinese dialogue. We are going to rock the socks off the shop assistants next time we want to exchange a pair of corduroy trousers for a smaller pair in a slightly different style.

4. East Meets West: An Infographic by Yang Liu
I love infographics. I would read more non-fiction if it was presented to me in picture format. I saw this on the web this week and thought it was one of the best I’ve ever seen.

Yang Liu is an artist who was born in China but lived in Germany from the time she was 14. She designed this series of infographics to represent her observations about Chinese culture and German culture. Obviously it’s a huge generalization but, actually, surprisingly accurate. I particularly like the one on queuing. Some day I’ll write a handbook on how to queue in different countries.

Lifestyle: Independent vs. dependent

Attitude towards punctuality

At a party

Ideal of beauty

Elderly in day to day life

The boss

Noise level inside a restaurant

Problem-solving approach

Size of the individual’s ego

Perception: How Germans and the Chinese see one another

How to stand in line

Complexity of self-expression

Traveling and recording memories

Connections and contacts

Three meals a day



Moods and weather



Happy Year of the Horsey!

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Happy Chinese New Year! Actually it was Chinese New Year last week but the firecrackers are still going off here in the middle of the night so who can tell? Luckily, Little A can sleep through rockets landing outside his window - this might come in handy if he pursues a career as a war reporter. Personally, I’d rather he didn’t but the sound of shells exploding near his head may remind him fondly of his childhood in Shanghai.

Despite the fact that Mr Oh had three days off work, we didn’t go anywhere. In fact, we only barely left the apartment. It seems like a waste, doesn’t it, to have all that free time and do nothing with it? I am satisfied in the knowledge that the not moving option was preferable to the going anywhere option. Chinese New Year is generally regarded as a massive general mill-about. It’s like a billion people suddenly stand up and decide to travel. Every plane, bus, train and donkey cart in the country is jammed with people going somewhere. The safest place to be during this time is where people are not going anywhere i.e. our apartment - there was very little going anywhere in our apartment.

Chinese New Year is a bit like Christmas, for Chinese people. They hang out with their families and eat. As much as I’m loathe to admit it, in many ways CNY is better than Christmas. For one, there’s no present shopping. This has to be a good thing. I’m not good at presents. Sadly, we seem to be surrounded by friends and family who are really good at giving presents and never forget (you know who you are). We thought we might have shaken them off when we moved to China and conveniently forgot to give anyone our postal address. It turns out there’s nowhere to hide from present-givers. They will track you down and they will send you a lovely and thoughtful gift even if you live in China, your address is in Chinese and you lost the key to your mailbox. Even then, the presents will arrive. You will be horrified by the fact that you have, yet again, failed at present-giving and resolve, in the Year of the Horse, to find out where the post office in Shanghai is located and learn how to say ‘send this to Europe quick-smart’ in Chinese.

The Chinese don’t need to worry about this. They do not do presents (an unforeseen side-effect of which is the difficulty finding wrapping paper in China). That’s not strictly true. Chinese people do give presents but they don’t wrap them and they’re not like the kind of things we would give. It’s more like “Happy New Year, here’s a gallon of cooking oil”. Cooking oil is a good gift. Everyone needs cooking oil. I was once given a bottle of insect repellent for Chinese New Year. It was very practical and protected me from itching and malaria. I appreciated it a lot more than the golden, ornamental desk rat (I kid you not) I was once given by a former boss for Christmas. In defense of my former boss, he might have given it to me in the Year of the Rat but I really can’t say for sure. It now sits proudly in the office of my successor who, on a recent visit back to the office, kindly offered to return it to me (along with the golden, ornamental fern the same boss gave me the following year).

Chinese New Year is not about presents. There are no trees and surprisingly few decorations. There are no carols or men with beards (Chinese men can’t grow beards very well). There are, however, red envelopes stuffed with money. These ‘hong baos’ (which means ‘red envelope’) are what the Chinese give to each other. They are much better than presents. Parents give them to children, bosses give them to their employees. I gave one to Ayi. It was in a white envelope rather than a red one but I wrote ‘hong bao’ on the outside and put money inside so I don’t think she minded too much. I didn’t give one to Little A because he likes to throw money in the toilet - coins mostly (he likes the sound) - but also notes if he finds them. Instead, we bought him a ball pit filled with hundreds of small plastic balls - what a mistake that was - I should have given him money and let him throw it in the toilet - it would have been less messy.

Christmas 2013

Christmas is over! Maybe not officially, but it’s over in my head. Mr Oh has gone back to work. Little A has gone back to playschool. I think he’s quite relieved. He was starting to think that he was kept at home as punishment for something. It was hard work trying to keep him entertained last week. Every day, he needs to be taken out to ‘burn off the coal’, as Mr Oh calls it. Burning off the coal is not a straightforward affair in a city with radioactive pollution levels, no green spaces and a set of pavements that double as a freeway for motorbikes.

Speaking of motorbikes on pavements, my pet hate of the week is when you’re walking along the pavement, as is your right, and a motorbike zooms up behind you and beeps aggressively until you get out of its way. I am sometimes tempted to push these people off their motorbikes. In my head, I do it all the time. I give the obnoxious motorbike rider a solid sideways shove and he goes tumbling to the ground where he immediately repents for being an ass in the first place. In reality, it would be unlikely to pan out this way. In reality, the motorbike rider would get up and beat me with an iron bar. It’s not worth being self-righteous - you might end up with a black eye and a few cracked ribs. That said, I’ve never experienced any overt violence here although it’s probably mostly because I don’t act on my daydreams of attacking passing motorists.

Enough about my pet hates, my pet like of the week is the way China has embraced Christmas thereby facilitating me to decorate my home in a manner befitting the grotto of an overzealous elf. I was able to source organized bunches of festive greenery with strategically located candles (I have no idea what the official name for these things might be - “Christmas candle shrub”?). I was also able to source a real Christmas tree - although being a perishable item with a small market base in a Godless country it was not the most cost effective of my financial transactions. Some chancer up in the flower market was trying to get us to pay €180 for a tree. Mr Oh refused to even negotiate with him and almost abandoned the idea of buying a tree altogether until I accused him of trying to steal Christmas from me with his Grinchy ways. Finally we found one that did not cost €180 but still cost more than I am willing to admit in public (or private).

There are two peculiar qualities about Chinese Christmas trees.
1. They are very spiky. So spiky, in fact, that Mr Oh had to wear protective gloves while decorating the tree - an endeavor that took him over two hours to complete due as much to the constant pricking of his hands and arms as his Christmas tree OCD. Christmas tree OCD is a disease of the mind which prevents you from walking away from a tree decorating session until everything is symmetrical. This condition is aggravated by the tree itself being lopsided.
2. They come with friends. About an hour after our Christmas tree was delivered, I heard silence in the living room. Always suspicious of silence, I went in to find Little A on his hands and knees crawling around my silk rug (the same one he had poo’d on several months earlier) cavorting with a frog. Little A and the frog appeared to have struck up a firm friendship, one that I was afraid would end up with the frog in Little A’s mouth. I did what every modern woman would do. I put a bucket over the frog and waited for my husband to come home and deal with it.

The tree looked pretty in the end. Little A broke three baubles in the first ten minutes prompting me to relocate all the dangly things to the top half of the tree, which threw Mr Oh’s tree OCD into a tailspin but I promised that he can have a symmetrically decorated tree again when Little A moves out or stops wanting to eat broken glass, whichever comes first.

Santa did not come to our house because Little A does not know who Santa is. We gave him presents in the weeks before and, on the day itself, he had plenty of wrapping paper to fling at the ceiling which, it seems, was the best present of all. Ayi, our ayi, was totally perplexed by the whole affair. Her horror that we had brought a molting tree into the house was compounded by the fact that I told her how much we had paid for the dead specimen (actually, I didn’t tell her, she asked the man delivering it). Equally confusing for her were the crib figures on the mantelpiece, she kept picking up the baby Jesus and examining him, perhaps for signs that he was about to magically transform into Santa. For Christmas lunch, we went to a hotel with free flow champagne, all you can eat turkey and dancing Chinese ladies dressed like hookers…sorry, elves.

It was a good Christmas. My mother was made the arduous journey to Shanghai in mid-December to spend a festive week with us before jetting back to Ireland in time for Christmas. In her absence, my father had unilaterally taken the controversial decision to ask the butcher to take the legs off the turkey and de-bone them. She listened to his daily updates on the state of turkey with increasing alarm and had she not been afraid he would eventually ask the butcher to take all the meat off the turkey and turn it into mince for a turkey spaghetti, I think she could have been convinced to stay longer ;-)

Thankfully, Mr Oh’s brother - DJ Bubbles (so named for his penchant for music without words or apparent melody) - came over from Tokyo to spend Christmas with us. He proved to be most excellent at ‘burning off the coal’ and spent many hours teaching Little A important life lessons that seemed to involve jumping off furniture and disco dancing. He also proved to be proficient at burning off Mr. Oh’s coal and the two of them often disappeared into the lights of Shanghai after I had retired for the evening. Unfortunately, one of us had to stay and look after Little A. Also, I know that I cannot go drinking with DJ Bubbles. He’s 24, he has more coal than Inner Mongolia and he does not appear to need sleep. I let Mr Oh take the hit for the family.

Culture Shock

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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!]

Don't Panic

The image above shows the view from the back of our apartment ten minutes ago. Usually you can see skyscrapers too. Presumably they’re still there and you just can’t see them through the ‘fog’. Except it’s not fog, or mist or cloud. It’s airborne poison. For the last three days, Shanghai has been experiencing the worst air pollution on record. Today the Air Quality in Shanghai reached the top of the scale and just kept on going.

A few months ago, I jovially penned a little post about the air quality bemoaning the fact that the Air Quality Index (AQI) in Shanghai frequently reached 150 but thankful that it didn’t go to 200 too often. I posted this guide:


I’ve always been conscious that pollution is an issue in Shanghai, especially for children. I generally don’t let Little A play outside when it gets over 150. At 200, I definitely keep him indoors. I’ve never seen it go over 220 before this week. As of the last hour, it’s just hit 509 - that’s quite literally off the scale. My poor little air monitoring app is so bewildered by the fact that the reading is ‘beyond index’ that it is telling me the air quality is ‘good’ (with a slightly insane looking smiley face beside it).


But the air isn’t good - it’s tastes of the inside of an exhaust pipe and it burns when you breathe. I’ve never seen anything like it (but then again, I don’t live in Beijing where this is, sadly, an all too common experience). It’s hard to get a sense of what severe pollution is like if you’ve never experienced it but I can give you some idea of the scale of this particular crisis event.

I had a look at some air quality readings from around the world this morning:
New York 11
Paris 49
Singapore 20
Beijing 185
Shanghai 509

I would have tried to get more readings for more heavily populated cities like Delhi and Rio de Janeiro which are likely to have higher readings (but not this high) but couldn’t find them on the internet.

There’s not a lot we can do except hope for a strong gust of wind to blow it into someone else’s airspace. We have two air purifiers running in the apartment at the moment but we need at least three more to make sure the whole apartment is covered. We also have filtered masks which I bought last week. When I was putting in the order, Mr Oh said he didn’t want me to buy him one. I said I’d just buy one so that we have it and he told me not to bother because he wouldn’t wear it. Stupidly, I listened to him. It was a slightly sheepish husband who went off to work this morning in a black mask dotted with pink hearts that he had to borrow from his wife. Little A refuses to wear his and screams whenever it’s produced. He’s not allowed to leave the apartment. He’s lucky I don’t chain him to the air purifier.

The sad thing is that most Chinese people don’t have air purifiers. Most, in fact, don’t even realise the extent of the danger. When discussing the pollution with my Chinese teacher - who is generally an intelligent and worldly lady - she told me that air pollution is a real problem for foreigners because we’re not used to it. My Danish classmate and I were stunned into silence. We wanted to object and tell her that just because you’re used to air pollution doesn’t mean it’s not just as damaging. We wanted to be righteous and right (well, I did anyway). But our teacher quietly said - this is where Chinese people live, we can’t go anywhere. Like many Chinese, she doesn’t want to hear about the dangers of air pollution because she can’t do anything about it. She can’t move. She can’t keep her child in a purified room all day - local schools don’t have air purifiers and, at about €2,000 per unit, not many Chinese homes can afford them. Some Chinese people wear masks but most of the masks don’t have filters and therefore don’t provide any protection.

Pollution is played down in the media. It’s not ignored so much as mentioned in passing - in a factual sort of way e.g. “today the pollution is bad, maybe you shouldn’t jog”. There’s probably no point in sending 1.35 billion people into a blind panic unless you’re also coming to the table with a solution. It reminds me of the SARS outbreak in 2002. Until the Chinese media tells you to freak out, you don’t freak out, but once they give you that green light, you freak out big style.

What’s the point in scaring people - even when the threat is real? They haven’t even closed the schools though, I can’t understand that but, then again, if the kids aren’t in school, the parents often can’t go to work and that creates a whole other set of problems. They’re telling children and the elderly to stay indoors where possible but why would the air quality inside be better that outside? You can’t protect the indoors from the outdoors for more than a few days. I see Chinese children on the street (or at least I did when I was still venturing outside) and they’re playing in shop fronts out in the open air - there’s no where else for them to go. The scary thing is that we don’t really know yet how the air pollution will affect them in decades to come, those children who are breathing in toxic air continuously throughout the day, throughout their childhoods.

In the past, environmentalism for me has always been something vague and intangible. A little bit of recycling, some biodegradable washing powder, a touch of pontificating. And bitching about the EU - we all love bitching about the EU - with their annoying regulations and directives. But yesterday evening, when I realized that I don’t know when Little A will next step outdoors, when I could see pollution haze under the lights in the kitchen after we moved the air purifiers into the bedroom, when I couldn’t stand in the air outside our back door for more than ten seconds without choking - then the real meaning of environmentalism hit me. It’s not some airy fairy aspirational sound biting best left to hippies, people who do yoga and Eurobores. Those are the people who are trying to beat back the deluge before it drowns us (maybe not the people who do yoga - some of them just want flexible hamstrings).

This is my reality (from the relative safety of my purified room). This is China’s reality. But imagine if it were a sign of things to come - for all of us.


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.

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.


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.

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.

A Good Air Day

Pasted Graphic

Huzzah! It’s a good air day (see smiley face above)! I used to wake up, pick up my phone and check my email, my Facebook and the Irish Times before I did anything. Now I wake up and check the Shanghai Air Quality, my email and that’s about it. I still check Facebook but not until I’ve turned on the VPN which I use to vault the great China firewall. Any interest I had in Irish news (which was minimal if we’re being honest) has been superseded by interest in the toxicity of the air I’m breathing. Today, thankfully it’s not so toxic (although at 50, it’s on the border of being not that great).


The nice people at the American Consulate in Shanghai provide the data. They have a hi-tech wand or something that analyses his kind of thing. They probably have an attaché whose job it is to measure the air quality. I imagine he’s not too popular with the Chinese - they like to provide their own stats on the level of pollution. They have a website dedicated to providing accurate and timely data on the pollution levels around China ( I wonder, though, why I’ve never heard of any of the towns for which they provide data - it seems that they’ve located their pollution collection wands on the tops of mountains, hundreds of miles from the nearest metropolis. It is reassuring, however, to note that if I should even visit Sanmenxia in Hunan Province, the air quality is likely to range between ‘good’ and ‘very good’. The American Consulate in Shanghai is located about 500m from our apartment so I reckon their wand is of more use to me than any of the randomly placed Chinese ones.

It is also interesting to note the existence of what could be described as ‘pollution spin’. Zigong in Sichuan Province has, according to the Chinese website, an AQI of 147 today. This, the website tells us, is ‘slight polluted’. If we look at the handy chart above, you can see that 147 falls in the menacing orange bracket and is classified as ‘unhealthy for sensitive groups’. I think ‘slight polluted’ is more friendly.

According to the Americans, Beijing is currently experiencing at AQI of 179 (Unhealthy) which makes me happy I don’t live in Beijing because I’ve never seen their AQI drop below 100. According to the Chinese, the most polluted place in the country is the aforementioned Zigong, which is just scraping under the ‘unhealthy’ category. I wonder if the Chinese would consider repositioning their wands? I feel like they’re missing some key cities.

Despite the existence of these handy apps and websites, I don’t need either the Chinese or the Americans to tell me how polluted it is outside. You can taste it. It’s like a soup. Some days it’s a light broth, like a teaspoon of Bovrilmonoxide in a steaming vat of hot water. Other days, it’s like a muggy, cyanide stew. The air is thick with the smell and taste of it. It’s like that time Mr Oh accidentally liquidised Baby M’s silicone dummy when trying to sterilize it in boiling water. He let the water boil down and eventually the room was filled with the thick fumes of melted plastic gone airborne. That’s what it’s like on a bad air day here, like somebody is melting China’s dummy. Thankfully it’s not Mr Oh this time.

The most recent update tells me that Shanghai AQI is up to 55 now complete with sad face (see below) - so much for my good air day.


If we’re getting the American sad face at 55, I wonder what happens if the AQI reaches 300 (probably not much because the Americans will have cleared out and abandoned post at that stage). Maybe the Americans can manage their updates remotely from their tropical beach in Guam and the face will do this:


The Chinese website classifies an AQI of 55 ‘good’. I like their optimistic approach - it’s a damn sight better than waking up to sad faces every morning.




The main reason I wanted to move back to China is that I resent paying €70 for a bad massage. Hmmm, I think I might submit the previous sentence to The Chinese are wrong about many things - pig organ soup, spitting, construction safety, Westlife, street peeing etc - but they understand the many and varied health benefits of regular massage.

We’ve been here for over a month now and, before last night, I had only had one massage. It was a foot massage (start small) and it didn’t work out very well. The massage itself was very nice but unfortunately it left my foot muscles so relaxed that, on the way home, through at dark alley at 11pm my ankle gave way and I tumbled onto the concrete in front of a handful of semi-amused construction workers who were washing their undies by a tap. Hardly swanlike. At least they didn’t laugh. I decided to pretend that I intentionally decided to aquaint myself with the dirty, damp alley floor as part of normal ‘laowai’ (foreigner) activity that was so sophisticated as to be unknown to them and therefore beyond their comprehension. I think they bought it. I scraped myself off the ground and, with as much dignity as I could muster, limped exuberantly home with blood streaming down my shin and a grin plastered on my face.

The injury - both physical and mental - had by last night faded sufficiently for me to reattempt a Chinese massage. I thought it better to stick to the foot massages for the time being. During my first stint in China in 2002, I went for a full-body massage with the blind masseurs who are well known for their skill in the area. They are strong and the massage is not for the faint hearted. As the masseur pressed his elbow into my lower back, I knew I had reached the limit of my pain threshold. He’s blind so grimacing to indicate discomfort was not an option and he didn’t speak any English. I tried to use my feeble Chinese to communicate my wishes. I said ‘zhong yidian’ - which I thought meant ‘too strong’. I couldn’t understand it when he just kept going and, if anything, seemed to be intent on tormenting me. I winced with the pain and repeated ‘zhong yidian’ but he didn’t let up. I spent the rest of the massage sobbing quietly while the blind man drove his thumbs into my tender, silently screaming spine. He must have thought I was so weak and foreign that I couldn’t even handle a little tiny bit of discomfort. The Chinese, I knew, firmly believed that a massage must be painful for it to be good. Who am I to argue with hundreds of years of blind massage knowledge? It was several weeks before I realized, in conversation with a colleague, that what I should have said was ‘yidian zhong’ - too strong - rather than ‘zhong yidian’ - stronger. The poor man probably through I was some crazy laowai trying to punish myself. Sometimes a little bit of the wrong language is a dangerous thing!

With this 10 year old memory still far too fresh in my mind, I resolved to stick to the foot massages until I was ready to take the step up to a full-body. That way you can at least kick them if they hurt you. It’s hard (and wrong) to kick a blind man when you’re lying on your tummy with your head stuck in round toilet-seat-shaped hole.

Mr Oh was kind enough to mind the mini-him while I toddled off for some me time. The price of an hour’s foot massage in my local place here is 120RMB, about €15. It’s not the cheapest in town but it’s good and, to be honest, if you go any cheaper you could get more than you bargained for. It’s also a great opportunity to practice my Chinese and my grasp of the language is better than it used to be (if it fails, there’s still the kicking option).

It’s a bit weird, but they always give a male therapist to female client and vice versa. I used to ask to have a female therapist but I think I got a reputation as a bit of a lesbian as a result so I’m willing to bow to cultural norms on this one. My nice massaji-man, No. 58 as he introduced himself, and I were getting along quite well and, as he worked on my shoulders, he tried to convince me to go for the oil foot massage instead of the normal one as apparently I was very stiff. The oil is a swizz. They charge an extra 50 RMB for it and it was not immediately clear how rubbing oil on my feet, as opposed to the standard cream, was going to help my muscle tension. I told him it was too expensive. He was unrelenting and I knew he was going to annoy me about this until I agreed to go for the expensive option. In his eyes, I was a rich foreigner and therefore ripe to be ripped off. Using every ounce of Chinese vocabulary available to me I told him my sad story. I have no job. My husband, he works but he doesn’t allow me to have massages very often and would angry if he knew I had paid for an upgraded version. No. 58 nodded sympathetically. He suggested that I just don’t tell husband that I went for the expensive version. I sighed. “But when I go home, he will count my money and, if he learns that I have spent more, he will be rageful”. I blinked and sniffed a bit. “All day I stay at home carrying the very heavy baby - this is why I am so tense and my husband, he gives me small money but very watchful. Always watching, always counting money.” I looked away. He didn’t ask me again. I think being a downtrodden, abused housewife is a role I can work with. At least he doesn’t think I’m a lesbian.

Mr Oh thought this was hilarious. I’m going to bring him along next time - to deposit me at the door, scowl and give me my little money for my cheapest-on-the-menu massage. Catherine 1, China 0.