Tuesday, 03 November 2015
(...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 Europe...now 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.
Wednesday, 21 October 2015
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, ARGGGHHH...me 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 Shanghai...so 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 3...fishing. 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.
Tuesday, 22 September 2015
I'm just going to get the bad news out of the way at the beginning...Orange and Other Orange are dead. They were as happy as two fish in a giant blue-lit filtered tank when we left for the summer. Mr Oh also did a stellar job at remembering to feed them occasionally when he was in Shanghai on his own. When he was due to join us in Ireland, he brought the fish into his office where they died. I don't blame them. Offices are no place for fish (or people really). Whenever I used to go into the office every day, sometimes I felt a bit green around the gills too. I didn't die though...I just had a string of children, moved to Shanghai and refused to go back. If only that option were available to pet goldfish.
Orange died first. I didn't ask how but I know that he made at least one attempt at fish suicide before his eventual demise. Other Orange did make it back to us at the end of the summer, but he didn't look great and it was clear that his time on earth was limited. Little A was delighted to be reunited with Other Orange and did ask me a few times where Orange was (actually he calls all fish that are not the one he is looking at at that particular moment 'Other Orange'). I dealt with this skillfully by looking at the ceiling and saying something reassuring like "Oh, you know...here and there..".
Then one morning, Other Orange was gone too. Mr Oh got up early and disposed of his body. That morning, Little A stood on his small giraffe stool, staring into the empty bowl from a variety of angles, as if Other Orange might be wedged under a pebble. "Where has Orange gone?", he asked (still flexible with the goldfish names). I took an executive decision that this would be a good time to discuss death with the 3-year-old. I think the clearer and more forthright we are about these issues the better. I looked Little A in the eye and I said, "Other Orange died". Little A looked at me for a long time with what I recognised as his thinking-hard-face (eyebrows scrunched, mouth slightly open, head cocked slightly to one side). I stood panicked in front of him - a million thoughts and regrets running through my head. Do we discuss heaven? Should I tell him that Daddy threw Orange in the black bin out the back? What if he cries? What if I cry? What have I done? Can I run away now? etc etc.
Little A looked at me and said "Where did Orange dive to?". A big wave of relief washed over me. The universe was giving me a life raft and I was going to take it. "Ehm...the ocean", I said with my best knowledgable look (which is not be confused with my making-it-up-as-I-go-along-look, to which it bears a startling similarity). "Like Nemo?", Little A asked. "Yes", I responded, "Just like Nemo."
"Oh", Little A said, apparently satisfied. "Orange has gone to play with Nemo and Nemo's Daddy in the ocean". I nodded persuasively.
"I want to buy a new fish", Little A announced. I was still nodding.
That afternoon, I set off across Shanghai with Snugglepunk, Little A and Ayi on a fish buying expedition. I had to buy more fish before Little A starting poking holes in my ocean diving story. The place one buys goldfish in this part of Shanghai is the Flower, Bird, Fish and Cockroach market. I don't think that's its official name, but it should be. It's an airless, windowless maze of tiny ramshackle stalls heaving with various things that move and swim and squelch and slither. The floor is slimey and it's best not to look down generally. Also best not to wear flip-flops but I'll know that for next time. With Snugglepunk on my hip and clutching Little A's hand in a vice-like grip to stop him running off to pet an iguana, we inched our way along the narrow alleys - Ayi leading the way, Little A trying to break free from me and me trying not to think about what just touched my foot. Snugglepunk was sitting happily aloft having a good look around and saying 'F-f-f-f' every time he saw a fish, which was every half a second.
Once we located goldfish corner, Ayi turned to me and said "No talking". I nodded and whispered "get 4 fish". Ayi then commenced to shout and point while I pleaded with Little A not to touch anything, not the floor, not the insects, not the slime covered fish tanks, not the birds, nothing. All I wanted was to get out of there with a few fish and no microbes of mutated tropical disease clinging to my children. We came home with 8 fish, 3 kg of gravel and big, pink plastic plant. I'm still not sure about the microbes.
We didn’t really get very imaginative with the fish naming. One was called Orange, one called Little Orange, then there was Other Orange 1, Other Orange 2, Other Orange 3, Black Fish (who was not orange) and Burt Reynolds.
The fish have not fared terribly well. One jumped out the first night. I found his lifeless fish-corpse lying on the floor in front of the tank. Mr Oh disposed of the body. Another was found floating in the top of the tank several days later. Mr Oh is a very good sport about his unsolicited role as fish undertaker. Things seemed ok for a few weeks and then I noticed that the fish all seemed to be infected with some kind of fungus that causes their fins to rot and open sores to appear on their body. I bought fish medicine but, alas, no amount of modern medicine could help those poor fish. One more died last night and Mr Oh bludgeoned another to death this morning to put him out of his misery. We're down to four fish and one of them has an ulcer on his head so I imagine he's next. It's become a real problem because although Little A's counting skills are rudimentary (he just counts the fish every time he sees them so at one point he thought there were 23 fish in the tank which, incidentally, is as high as he can count), even he will notice when we're down to three fish.
I need to source disease-free fish in China. I think online might be the answer. I am certainly not going back to the cusp of creepy-crawlie hell that is the slime market. I might try Taobao. I didn't think live fish was the kind of thing you would be able to buy online and have delivered but then I remembered that this is China...everything can be bought online and delivered. Even a live fox (see below, poor fox looks none too happy about finding itself in the online Chinese marketplace).
I should really just abandon my dreams of having a fish-filled house and just stop buying fish but the boys love them...and i have the stupid tank now. I promise I'm going to stop writing about goldfish soon.
Saturday, 05 July 2014
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.
Monday, 30 December 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.
Friday, 06 December 2013
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
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.
Tuesday, 12 November 2013
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.
Thursday, 24 October 2013
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.
Wednesday, 18 September 2013
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 (http://datacenter.mep.gov.cn/report/air_daily/air_dairy_en.jsp). 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.
Monday, 09 September 2013
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 middleclassproblems.com. 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.