Little A

The "School Trip"

flower
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.  

fc




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The Last Post I'll Ever Write About Goldfish

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I'm just going to get the bad news out of the way at the beginning...Orange and Other Orange are dead.  They were as happy as two fish in a giant blue-lit filtered tank when we left for the summer.  Mr Oh also did a stellar job at remembering to feed them occasionally when he was in Shanghai on his own.  When he was due to join us in Ireland, he brought the fish into his office where they died.  I don't blame them.  Offices are no place for fish (or people really).  Whenever I used to go into the office every day, sometimes I felt a bit green around the gills too.  I didn't die though...I just had a string of children, moved to Shanghai and refused to go back.  If only that option were available to pet goldfish.

Orange died first.  I didn't ask how but I know that he made at least one attempt at fish suicide before his eventual demise.  Other Orange did make it back to us at the end of the summer, but he didn't look great and it was clear that his time on earth was limited.  Little A was delighted to be reunited with Other Orange and did ask me a few times where Orange was (actually he calls all fish that are not the one he is looking at at that particular moment 'Other Orange').  I dealt with this skillfully by looking at the ceiling and saying something reassuring like "Oh, you know...here and there..". 

Then one morning, Other Orange was gone too.  Mr Oh got up early and disposed of his body.  That morning, Little A stood on his small giraffe stool, staring into the empty bowl from a variety of angles, as if Other Orange might be wedged under a pebble.  "Where has Orange gone?", he asked (still flexible with the goldfish names).  I took an executive decision that this would be a good time to discuss death with the 3-year-old.  I think the clearer and more forthright we are about these issues the better.  I looked Little A in the eye and I said, "Other Orange died".   Little A looked at me for a long time with what I recognised as his thinking-hard-face (eyebrows scrunched, mouth slightly open, head cocked slightly to one side).   I stood panicked in front of him - a million thoughts and regrets running through my head.  Do we discuss heaven?  Should I tell him that Daddy threw Orange in the black bin out the back?  What if he cries?   What if I cry?  What have I done?  Can I run away now?  etc etc.  

Little A looked at me and said "Where did Orange dive to?".   A big wave of relief washed over me.  The universe was giving me a life raft and I was going to take it.  "Ehm...the ocean",  I said with my best knowledgable look (which is not be confused with my making-it-up-as-I-go-along-look, to which it bears a startling similarity).  "Like Nemo?", Little A asked.  "Yes", I responded, "Just like Nemo."  

"Oh", Little A said, apparently satisfied.  "Orange has gone to play with Nemo and Nemo's Daddy in the ocean".   I nodded persuasively.  

"I want to buy a new fish",  Little A announced.  I was still nodding.  

That afternoon, I set off across Shanghai with Snugglepunk, Little A and Ayi on a fish buying expedition.  I had to buy more fish before Little A starting poking holes in my ocean diving story.  The place one buys goldfish in this part of Shanghai is the Flower, Bird, Fish and Cockroach market.  I don't think that's its official name, but it should be.  It's an airless, windowless maze of tiny ramshackle stalls heaving with various things that move and swim and squelch and slither.  The floor is slimey and it's best not to look down generally.  Also best not to wear flip-flops but I'll know that for next time.  With Snugglepunk on my hip and clutching Little A's hand in a vice-like grip to stop him running off to pet an iguana, we inched our way along the narrow alleys - Ayi leading the way, Little A trying to break free from me and me trying not to think about what just touched my foot.  Snugglepunk was sitting happily aloft having a good look around and saying 'F-f-f-f' every time he saw a fish, which was every half a second.  

Once we located goldfish corner, Ayi turned to me and said "No talking".   I nodded and whispered "get 4 fish".  Ayi then commenced to shout and point while I pleaded with Little A not to touch anything, not the floor, not the insects, not the slime covered fish tanks, not the birds, nothing.  All I wanted was to get out of there with a few fish and no microbes of mutated tropical disease clinging to my children.  We came home with 8 fish, 3 kg of gravel and big, pink plastic plant.   I'm still not sure about the microbes.

We didn’t really get very imaginative with the fish naming. One was called Orange, one called Little Orange, then there was Other Orange 1, Other Orange 2, Other Orange 3, Black Fish (who was not orange) and Burt Reynolds.

The fish have not fared terribly well.  One jumped out the first night.  I found his lifeless fish-corpse lying on the floor in front of the tank.  Mr Oh disposed of the body.  Another was found floating in the top of the tank several days later.  Mr Oh is a very good sport about his unsolicited role as fish undertaker.  Things seemed ok for a few weeks and then I noticed that the fish all seemed to be infected with some kind of fungus that causes their fins to rot and open sores to appear on their body.  I bought fish medicine but, alas, no amount of modern medicine could help those poor fish.  One more died last night and Mr Oh bludgeoned another to death this morning to put him out of his misery.  We're down to four fish and one of them has an ulcer on his head so I imagine he's next.    It's become a real problem because although Little A's counting skills are rudimentary (he just counts the fish every time he sees them so at one point he thought there were 23 fish in the tank which, incidentally, is as high as he can count),  even he will notice when we're down to three fish.  

I need to source disease-free fish in China.   I think online might be the answer.  I am certainly not going back to the cusp of creepy-crawlie hell that is the slime market.  I might try Taobao.  I didn't think live fish was the kind of thing you would be able to buy online and have delivered but then I remembered that this is China...everything can be bought online and delivered.  Even a live fox (see below, poor fox looks none too happy about finding itself in the online Chinese marketplace).  

I should really just abandon my dreams of having a fish-filled house and just stop buying fish but the boys love them...and i have the stupid tank now.   I promise I'm going to stop writing about goldfish soon.  


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What I Did Last Summer

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And...we're back!    We've all returned to Shanghai - Little A has returned to school - I've returned to checking the air quality every hour,  retching on the street (the sound of spitting does it to me) and screaming "Don't touch that!" at least five times an hour.  Summer is officially over! 

When I first arrived here, I heard about the total mass exodus of expats from Shanghai during the summer.  If you're foreign, have children and are able to - you leave - for months if you can.  It all sounds a bit decadent at first but after I did Summer 2014 in Shanghai, I swore never again.  It's 40 degrees, 100% humidity, the pollution sticks to the sweat in your hair, there are still no parks, the schools are closed, everyone is gone. In summer, the Chinese to French person ratio in my neighborhood skyrockets and the sock-less Vespa riders disappear from the roads. So, this year, we left too.  

The prospect of two months of clean air made me happy to unprecedented proportions.  So much so that I was willing to do that journey again - you know the day-time one that I do on my own with the two boys that lasts 13 hours and then the Heathrow transfer and then another hour long flight?  Yeah, that one.   Mr Oh looked a bit terrified for me as he waved goodbye to us at the airport.   He was following us a month later.  No, I didn't feel sorry for him.  He had a month of partying, fabulous dinners, lie-ins and lazy weekends to look forward to.  I had a month of laundry, and solo-parenting ahead of me, plus that awful journey.   In reality, he appeared to do rather little partying and spent his weekends sitting forlornly on the sofa playing his guitar into the middle-distance.  

And the journey was fine.  Once you accept that you will spent 13 hours being bitten and crawled upon by a 10 month old, wrangling three people into a dirty plane toilet at regular intervals, bribing an almost 3 year old with snacks and endless TV and trying to stifle the sobs of boredom and frustration that are welling up inside you like a tidal wave of volcanic emotion.  Once you make your peace with that - it’s totally doable.  It also makes you feel like a superhero (only when it's over though, during the actual journey you will feel like a human dishcloth - damp with sweat, fear, breastmilk and the various bodily fluids of your small children).   

If anyone would like further information on flying solo with young kids, please see my earlier post
here.  

We had an amazing two months in Dublin, London and the south of France.  Snugglepunk crawled on grass for the first time ever.  Little A dug potatoes out of the garden and learned that not all dirt contains nuclear waste.   We went for walks, ran over sand dunes, swam in the sea (France), paddled in the sea until our feet got headaches (Ireland), climbed walls, visited castles and playgrounds, ate food that was high-quality and healthy (Percy Pigs are made from real fruit juice) and did all the things that we can't do in China.  We saw some friends - not as many as we would have liked but Snugglepunk isn't a fan of the car, much like his brother before him (
see previous post on baby car-travel trauma).  

I even became a Godmother for the first time (Hiya Baby T!) which was amazing.  Our boys don't have a lot of experience in churches (they are, however, incredibly well behaved in Buddhist temples).  After Baby T's christening, Little A ran up to me, pointed at the altar and said "I want to go up there and sing Let It Go".  I said "Let's go light some candles for your great-grandmothers instead who are, at this moment, turning in their graves".  Little A said "Ok, that sounds fun."  He lit six candles and promptly blew them all out.  I had to hold my hand over his mouth as he started to sing Happy Birthday to the lady statue.  I looked over at Little A's own Godmother and sighed...she's got her work cut out for her.  

Mr Oh joined us in London and we all spend the next 3 weeks jetting around Europe consuming our body weight in ice-cream and raw meat.  We were able to travel back together to China although I noted that Mr Oh brought his book with him on the plane which I thought was hilarious. 

So 7 weeks later, here we are.  Back again.  On return, we spent 7 full days tortured by jet-lag and children who tag-teamed night time waking so that I never got any sleep.  Just when I thought they’d fetch a good price on Taobao, they all started sleeping again and I got bronchitis.  Ah China bronchitis...it's good to be home. 

Footnote: The title photo appears courtesy of the London Massive (i.e. my bro and sister-in-law). It’s not really courtesy of them because I haven’t asked them if I can use it yet. In fact, I only realized they probably took the photo when I noticed that it appeared strangely unwarped - which is unheard of in any panoramic iPhone shot that either me or Mr Oh have attempted. Our panoramas look like a bad dream. The London Massive, however, know how to work their iPhones - this is how we know it was them.

The photo itself was taken at Uisneach, the sacred and mythological centre of Ireland. We spent a morning on this hill looking at bulls and sacrificing our hangovers to the ancient gods of Ireland. (The hangovers were courtesy of my cousin Jude and her new husband Trevor who had the most amazing wedding in a field…as you do).
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Orange's Adventures

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They're alive!   Orange and Other Orange have prevailed.  They lived to see another day...and then another after that.  It didn't look good for them at first - they did not come into our lives in a vestibule conducive to survival.  They most likely originated from a location of unsanitary, diseased and morally vacant characteristics.  I hope, at least, that our home was a step up in this regard (small children are not exactly famed for their hygiene and compassion however) .   The tupperware was roomy, if sparse.  The locals, i.e. Little A and Snugglepunk, enthusiastic and noisy but not, it turns out, murderous.   

I will confess, it nearly ended badly...for Orange anyway.   They were detained uneventfully for about 48 hours in the tupperware before the fish bowl and pretty green gravel arrived.   After a few minutes in their new home, I came to the conclusion that the fish bowl was totally inadequate. Ayi did not agree, she has less interest in the comfort and spacial requirements of goldfish.  Mr Oh concurred with my assessment that they needed roomier digs - he has a vested interest in the survival of the goldfish.  He has no interest in explaining to Little A about pet-death...he's still a bit perturbed about Little A's extensive exposure to moth genocide.  

This led to another prolonged online search in Chinese for fish accommodation, hampered by the fact that the Chinese for fish bowl is annoyingly not 'fish' + 'bowl'.  Searches for "fish+bowl" (yuwan) resulted in many options, if I were in the market for a ceramic bowl with a fish painted on it.  I was not - we already have six bowls with fish painted on them.  Unsurprisingly (because he's essentially Chinese), Little A calls these items 'fish bowls' as well.   It look a while to work out that the Chinese for fish bowl is "fish+vat" (yugang).  [
缸 for anyone who finds themselves in a similar predicament.]

So, in the interests of keeping the fish alive, I invested in a “fish vat package with landscaping”.  As is often the case when I order things online in Chinese, I am never quite sure what's going to turn up.  What arrived was a medium sized aquarium complete with lighting system, internal filter and pump, live plants that arrived chilled in soil and skillfully suspended in a styrofoam box by toothpicks (a set-up that's hard to convey in words so I'll just stop now rather than spend the next three paragraphs describing the plant delivery method), three types of gravel, a piece of Japanese driftwood that I had to boil first, as well as enough food, apparatus and environmental stabilizers to set up an Irish national aquarium in Shanghai.  I was mildly surprised it didn't come with fish.  

It look me twenty minutes just to fill the thing with water.  I really should have decided where I wanted it to be located before I filled it with water, plants, gravel and driftwood.  Another hour and a half later it was both filled with water AND where it should be.  The floor was pretty wet and Snugglepunk had to be sanitized.  

Orange and Other Orange, who seemed pretty happy in their rather traditional-looking fish bowl, were a bit resistant to the move but I caught them with my fish net and they didn't really have much say in the matter.   The Shanghai branch of the Irish National Aquarium was open for business and I was very pleased with how everything worked out.  

About three hours after the official launch, I was walking past and took a quick glance into the tank.  I saw Other Orange but didn't immediately see Orange.  I stepped a bit closer, thinking he might be behind a plant or under the driftwood, but there was no sign.  Just to get a better look, I got really close and peered over the top of the tank down into the water to see if I could locate Orange.  I heard a faint smacking sound and, in horror, I realised what had happened. 

Screaming "Help me, somebody help me" in a totally hysterical and melodramatic fashion (as is my way), I frantically pulled the writing desk, upon which the tank stood, back from the wall.   I now must apologise to my friend, Jill, who up until then had been sipping tea in my living room and, at that moment, possibly thought that I'd lost an arm rather than just a fish judging from the way she leapt off the sofa.  

As the desk was pulled back, Orange came into view, wriggling and dusty on the floor with fear blazing in his eyes.   Ever calm and cool-headed in emergency situations, I continued to shriek and wail loudly while scooping Orange off the floor in the net and flopping him back into the tank where he retreated to a corner, pulled all his fins in and sat stonily, looking deeply traumatised and still draped in cobweb.  Jill was not optimisitc.  "I don't think he's going to make it", she said.  I gave her a withering look but did concede that it was probably the fish equivalent of jumping out of an eternity pool on the 83rd floor of a luxury hotel onto the pavement.  

I then did what any decent, fish-loving person would do after such a trauma...I put a magazine over the top of the tank and went out to lunch.  When I came back, Orange was still alive.  He even looked a bit more chipper although he was still draped in strands of cobweb - lest we forget.  

The next morning, I took the magazine off and brought the water level down by another two inches.  I fed the fish, spoke to them and had a peek into the tank every 20 minutes or so to check that Orange hadn't had another go.   By the end of the day, I felt confident enough to step down the suicide watch.  By the following morning, Orange had managed to lose his trail of cobwebs and was back to looking relatively healthy and content.  

It just goes to show, large aquarium cannot buy fish happiness.  I'm pretty sure Confucius said that.  
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Fishies

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It was Children's Day in China yesterday.  I'm always suspicious of these types of 'festivals'.  It usually means Little A will come home from school with some kind of unusual gift.  I was not wrong.  Yesterday, when I picked him up, I was presented with a bag of decorative face clothes and two goldfish.  I don't think the two were connected.  I preferred it when they gave us insect repellant.

The fish were housed in a small, lidless jar - pretty cramped and precarious living conditions, even by goldfish standards, which I imagine is a low bar anyway. The problem of how to get them home seemed to be the first of many fish-related hurdles I was going to have to face that day. Unless, of course, I fell at the first hurdle after which there would be no further hurdles…apart from the explain-to-the-almost-3-year-old-about-death-hurdle. Yikes.

Given that I was in charge of carrying Snugglepunk on my back and pushing Little A in the pram...the welfare of the fish was left in the shaky and whimsical hands of a fickle pre-schooler with a penchant for pouring water out of things.  It was a slow journey home, punctuated by cries of "I wanna kiss the fish" and "Ooops".  

The pavements of Shanghai are no place for goldfish.   There are whizzing motorcycles, loose paving stones and unexpected slanty parts - not to mention a large wide-eyed child threatening to drink your environment.   At one point, Little A buckling under the tedium of responsibility,  quietly reached his arm out over the side of the pram, lowering the jar towards the pavement where he presumably planned to abandon it without fanfare or ado somewhere between the Bank of China and the KFC.  Thankfully, I was alerted to his plan by the fact that he had not threatened to pet the fish in several seconds and was able to whisk the jar out of his hand just before contact with the ground was made.  

Little A, unmoved by my daring rescue, looked up lazily and said "Mama, you hold fish" as he spent the rest of the journey home lounging in the pram with his hands behind his head outlining the various things he expected me to procure for him that afternoon..."Ice-cream, two cakes, some Peppa Pig, a bicycle, three hugs and wine".  

I spent the rest of the journey pretending I was a contestant in The Crystal Maze - holding open-water fish in one hand, pushing a pram with the other while a 10kg creature with teeth alternates bouncing, squealing and biting on my back and the 18 kg creature in the pram uses his feet against the wheels to cause the pram to veer sharply in one direction and then the other. The air was humid. My hair was in my eyes and I was running low on affection for both child and fish.

On arrival at home, Snugglepunk scampered off under a table in search of dropped crumbs of Play-Doh to lick off the floor.  Little A headed off into the kitchen in search of wine.  I should perhaps note at this stage that we have convinced Little A that prune juice is wine and he has become quite the connoisseur with the added advantage of regular bowel movements.  I'm sure that this is atrocious parenting but I'm not sorry....although I do wish he would stop demanding wine from people in restaurants and shops.  I think they just assume we’re French.

Anyway, I found myself standing alone in the living room holding a jar of goldfish and with no notion what I was supposed to do with them or how I was supposed to feed them.  I filled a tupperware container (the one I usually use for Corn Flakes, but will probably no longer use for Corn Flakes) with water and slotted the fish and their temporary hostel into the bookshelf.  I'd like to think it's out of Little A's reach but that would underestimate his ability to pile stools on top of each other and climb on top of them.  I have yet to find anywhere in the apartment that is actually out of his reach.  

I spent the next hour frantically trying to buy fish food and a fish bowl online while dinner went uncooked and children went untended to.  By the time the bowl and food get here, the fish - who Little A has named "Orange" and "Other Orange" - will probably be dead and I will have an unwanted fish bowl on my hands.  Maybe I can use it to store Corn Flakes?  

On waking this morning, I went to check on Orange and Other Orange.  They're still alive, surprisingly.  Little A spent five minutes tapping on the side of their tupperware and shouting "Hello fishies" at them before he left for school so I doubt they're long for this world.  

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March of the Philistines


dino
My soul is a cultural wasteland.  I don't read books that were written more than five years ago.  I hate the theatre (one-man plays, in particular, make me want to claw at my brain).  I don't see the point in concerts  - if I want to listen to Chopin, I'll do it from my kitchen while drinking wine and eating leftover Shepherd's Pie.  To Mr Oh's dismay, I don't even like gigs, unless there are seats, and wine.  I'm not fond of museums or galleries (no seats, no wine).  I quite like old churches (seats and sometimes wine), but that's about the limit of things I'll traipse out to look at.  My cultural aversion is such that I may be the only person to visit Beijing and not bother going to the Great Wall.  We did go to Tiananmen Square - big square, not much to see.  And we stood outside the Forbidden Palace (I took a wild guess that seats and wine were not among the forbidden enjoyments inside).  

In Shanghai, there isn't much to see by way of culture anyway.  The city itself is the attraction - the people, the alleyways, the buildings, the street food, the smells...ok, maybe not the smells...but the rest of it is pretty great.  Mr Oh is a bit more into seeing 'stuff' than I am and a few weeks ago,  in a rare show of spousal compliance,  I agreed to accompany him to the Shanghai Museum to look at stuff.  There were a lot of vases.  And people looking at vases.  It did not change my opinion on museums, or vases.  


But, there is one museum that I have been waiting a long time to visit - the newly opened Shanghai Natural History Museum.  If there is one thing that will make me leave the house with two children before 8am on a weekday, it's a building full of dinosaur bones and stuffed monkeys.  There aren't many things happening in Shanghai that appeal to an almost 3-year-old boy - so tales of long queues and massive crowds be damned - we were going to the Natural History Museum whether it was any good or not.  


In my experience of Chinese museums, the verdict tends to fall more heavily on the 'not' side of things.  China has a particular skill when it comes to tourism fail.  I once visited a limestone cave somewhere in Jiangsu Province to find that it was covered in pink neon strip lighting.  Places of interest are rammed with gabbling tour groups, the members of which are so busy documenting their experience that they forgot to have the experience in the first place.  If you don't have a video of it, it didn't happen.  Chinese tourists also seem to be of the view that if there aren't another 15,000 people doing the same thing as you, at the same time, it's probably not worth doing, or videoing.  


We tend to avoid anything touristy in China - partly because it's always aiming for, but never quite being, any good.  And partly because Little A and Snugglepunk usually become the attraction, and without swift intervention, get swallowed by a sea of people, documenting them, touching their heads and trying to pose for photos with them.  Only yesterday, a woman in a park got quite angry with me because I refused to let her hold Snugglepunk, as if he were some kind of communal baby I was failing to share with her.  And the day previously, as Mr Oh and Little A were crossing the road, a man crossing in the opposite direction reached down and touched Little A's face as he walked past, like rubbing a good luck charm.  He's lucky Little A didn't bite him.  He's lucky I didn't bite him.  He's particularly lucky that Mr Oh didn't notice it happening.  I'm going to have to consider hanging a sign around their necks...No Touching or Feeding The Foreign Babies.  


Anyway, we were willing to brave the early morning start, the unwanted attention, the queues, the crowds, the public toilets, the likelihood that it would be terrible - all in the name of culture, stuffed monkeys and Little A's love of dinosaurs.  


We got there half an hour after it opened.  The queue was long, snaking back and forth in front of the building (which was pretty swish and fancy).  Now if there's one thing the Chinese do not like doing, it is forming an orderly queue.  Everyone's a queue hopper and we had only been in the queue for a few seconds before people started pushing past us towards the front.  I stuck out my elbows and gave one pushy granny a good dig in the ribs. Undeterred, she plowed on past me and I was, at that moment, unwilling to take her down with a full force body slam.  She was probably 90 so I would have had an unfair advantage.  But the next guy wasn't getting away so easily.  I put my arm out as he tried to sidle past me and in my best angry Chinese said 'Nuh-uh Mister, get to the back of the queue'.  He was apologetic (I hate it when they do that, it ruins my flow) and was like 'I'm terribly sorry but I have to get there" pointing to some people ahead of me.  I was still a bit suspicious and questioned him 'You got some pengyous in the queue ahead'.  He nodded furiously "Yes, my wife and son".  Wife and son were waving at me at this stage.  Darn - I thought - as I waved him past - I'm too soft for this.  Just as I was pumping myself up with an internal pep talk on the importance on being firm with the queue dodgers, a fight broke out behind me.  One old lady was pushing another one into the railings and kicking her feet as she tried to sneak down the line.  I was quite relieved.  I'm not cut out for assaulting the elderly.  


The queue moved surprisingly fast and we were through the front doors in no time.  There was a totally ineffectual and token security check as is customary wherever groups of people gather in China.   There's a lot of waving around of metal detectors and patting down of bags without any real purpose.  It's always unclear to me what they are looking for...semi-automatic machine guns perhaps.  You'd probably root those out in a bag pat.  


The new Natural History Museum is a pretty impressive building.  It's all glass and shiny and no one is spitting on the floor.  There's English everywhere and big sign saying "Extrance" (seriously, you spend millions on a state of the art fully bilingual museum, with totally perfect English at all the exhibits, and a big Extrance sign over the door....sigh).  


After that though, it was actually very good.  I mean, it was totally mobbed naturally but it was really impressive.  There were realistic life size dinosaur models that moved and roared so Little A spent much of the visit screaming and wailing 'I wanna go home' and 'Don't let the dinosaur eat me!'.   There was one random floor where a sad little canteen sold illuminous mystery meat on a stick and viscous liquids of indeterminate composition which reminded me that I was still in China, but other than that, it was a top class international offering.  So often when reading reviews of hotels or attractions on TripAdvisor, you see phrases like 'It was pretty good, by Chinese standards' or 'The zoo wasn't totally depressing...there was a nice bench and one of the penguins seemed relatively healthy'.   So, it's nice to see somewhere that really is good.  Not just China good - but actually good.  Yeah there were still masses of people walking around with their smartphones stuck in front of their faces videoing the whole thing and there was one particularly boring exhibit on the native wildlife of the Shanghai area (presumably before the only wildlife were rats and over-dressed poodles) which had the familiar dated and slightly faded feel of other Chinese museums (it was strangely comforting)...but there were all kinds of animals and dinosaurs and loads of bones and enough stuffed monkeys to make a taxidermist cry.  


I was exhausted.  Mr Oh was delighted. Little A was traumatised.  Snugglepunk was fairly unfazed. We would totally go again. Early.  





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How To Survive A Moth Invasion

dragon
My friend Sabrina is scared of butterflies and moths.  I have to admit, I have not always thought this the most rational of phobias. Sabrina has held my hand as I've yelped my way through turbulent flights without batting an eyelid, but I've seen her shudder at a butterfly motif on a purse.  I now think she was on to something.  

My story began six weeks ago.  I was looking for icing sugar at the back of (my incredibly well stocked) food cupboard.  My hand came across something webby and sticky.  I immediately thought...tarantula!.. and had fleeting visions of it scampering up my arm and under my jumper.  The fact that tarantualas neither scamper nor build webs was irrelevant.  

Unwilling to leave the tarantula colony in the food cupboard indefinitely, I had a cleanout.  I found an ancient opened packet of peanuts that appeared to be covered in small cocoons.  I had a little peep in and a few small moths fluttered out and into the kitchen. Relief washed over me.  Moths are fine, I thought.  I can totally do moths.  Oh, the stupidity. 

Obviously, I threw out the offending peanut package and transferred anything already opened into those airtight lockable plastic containers.  I bleached the cupboard and off I went on my merry and vaguely smug way. 

I saw a few moths the next day, maybe one or two.  I dispatched them to the moth-afterlife.  The following day, I found a few more buzzing around the kitchen and then the next day, even more.  I decided I needed to call a man with some kind of moth death chemical...so Ayi and the insect man were left to sort out the problem while I went out for a walk with Snugglepunk.  I really thought it was that easy…and that I would arrive back to a moth-free apartment. It never occurred to me that I can’t always just hire people to fix things for me. Apparently there are some things I need to sort out myself. Is that the moral here?…Although you have to wonder what Beyoncé does when she has pantry moths.

On reflection, leaving Ayi with the insect man was a bad idea.  He just sprayed some 'medicine' in the cupboard and said that my food was too old and needed to be thrown out.  When you have spent six hours surfing the internet in Chinese for a packet of self-raising flour, you are reluctant to then part with the self-raising flour unnecessarily and without a good fight.

But the moths kept coming.  I took each container out of the cupboard and checked the seal and contents for moth eggs, or cocoons or anything.  I took all the dishes and plates out and put them through the dishwasher.  But every time I opened that cupboard I would find small moths hanging out on my Le Creuset ramekins as if they were beach loungers.  

And then they started popping up in other parts of the kitchen, in other cupboards, cupboards without any food in them.  I went to Google for answers.  Mistake.  I was inundated with desperate accounts from people who were losing the battle with pantry moths, who had to sell their houses or gut their kitchens.  I started panicking.  

As I panicked, the moths kept coming.  Little A and I would chase them around the house swatting them with tea towels.  Mr Oh knew there was a problem when, one evening, Little A (who has eyes like a hawk) shouted "Moff Mommy!  Kill it!! Kill de moff! Look, Daddy, moff dead".  I got a stern look and was forbidden from further involving the toddler in my pursuit of moth genocide.  

The moffs were everywhere.  I wouldn't see any all day and then could walk into the kitchen at about 5pm in the evening and count ten or so on the walls and cupboards.  Sometimes Mr Oh would come home after the children were in bed, and find me perched on a stool in the kitchen with the tea towel in hand as my eyes flickered from wall to wall, cupboard to cupboard.  Sometimes he would come home to find me taking apart the whole kitchen and stuffing everything that would fit into the dishwasher and spraying everything else with bleach.  But the moths kept coming.  

Then about two weeks ago, I gave in.  Broken by the moths that would not die, I agreed to get rid of all my pantry items.  I cried as I poured hundreds of euro worth of hard-to-find grains, flours, seeds and other dried goods into the bin.  I felt a little bit better about it when I found a moth cocoon nesting in the organic baby pasta I had hand carried back from Ireland in my suitcase (luckily had not fed it to Snugglepunk yet…)

We put everything through the dishwasher again.  Ayi was confident that the moth problem was over - she had been harrassing me for weeks to throw out the grains (she just doesn't appreciate how hard it is to find almond flour in China).  

She was wrong though...the moths kept coming, although they weren't in the food cupboard anymore.  They were somewhere else but I don’t know where…I had cleaned and washed everything. I even cleaned each slat in the window blinds, one by one. Every cupboard and surface was emptied, it’s contents washed and its surfaces bleached.  

I killed every single moth I saw, on sight.  Little A would shout "Chongzi!" whenever he saw one (Chinese for insect) and then I would have to usher him out of the kitchen while I "helped the moff to sleep".  

Did you know that one female pantry moth can lay up to 400 eggs?   No?  I did.  So when I saw two moths getting it on, on the ceiling above my fridge last week, I was overcome with fear and rage.  I stood on a stool and swatted at them.  They tumbled together behind the fridge.  I imagined 400 moth cocoons colonising the dusty spaces behind my fridge. Mr Oh and I moved the fridge and used flashlights to search for the remains of what Mr Oh had at this stage dubbed the Romeo and Juliet moths. We hoovered and bleached.  No sign of the love-moths.  Eventually they were spotted (still engaged in procreation) on another part of the wall.  They are no more.  My home was saved from their particular plague of offspring.

Was that the end of the moths?  No.  The moths kept coming.  But they came less and less frequently.  I haven't seen any in two days now (will probably find six tonight just because I said that).  

So, the moral of the story is keep all your dried goods in air-tight containers and don't make fun of your friends who have stupid phobias.  If you ever see a small moth in your kitchen...kill it, throw out everything you own and bleach the bejaysus out of everything else.  Or move house.  


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It's A Wonderful Life

monkey

Ways in which having children has changed my life:

1. I spend at least five minutes a day squeezing the water out of squeezy bath toys to stop them going moldy.  This is time that I used to spend whisking away stray eyebrow hairs.  Now I have a slight unibrow and the bath toys are still moldy.  

2. I sleep on my side because to sleep on my back would mean partially sleeping on another human - probably the small star shaped one taking up my half of the bed.  

3. I can't get out of the bed to pee at night because someone else's tiny bed is strapped to the side of my bed.  It is worth noting that this person has never once slept in his bed.  

4. It takes half an hour to complete what should be a ten minute walk from kindergarten to home.  This is because we need to stop every twenty paces for a kiss and every ten to stroke dead leaves.  

5. I used to nurse several glasses of wine over the course of an evening.  I now spend my evenings nursing and whining.

6. I know which one is Tom and which one is Jerry.   I also know that La-la is yellow, that there are ten Pontypines, the entire script of the Jungle Book, and the colour of every house in Balamory.  

7. I haven't bathed alone since 2012.  

8. Everything I cook can be eaten with just a fork. 

9. Only the top half of our Christmas tree is decorated.  

10. The only thing worse than running out of wine, is running out of raisins.  

11. Almost every piece of clothing I own has lycra in it somewhere.  

12. I say 'because I said so".  

13. I keep a stash of lollipops in my bag for emergencies.  

14. Some years I go to Christmas Mass more often than I go to the hairdresser.

15. I spend more money on shoes, but they’re smaller shoes, often with dinosaur motifs. I am convinced it would be less financially draining to develop a moderate to serious cocaine habit than trying to keep a toddler shod.  I am going to buy shares in Clarkes.  

16. The toilets have gotten smaller.  Well, the toilets themselves haven't actually gotten smaller but the entrance to the toilet bowl has as we've affixed them all with tiny baby bum shaped tops to prevent Little A from falling into the toilet when he pees. 

17. About 10% of what I eat has been in another person's mouth first.  
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Happy Birthday Little A!

I know I only wrote a blog entry yesterday but Little A is two years old today so I’m writing another one.

In celebration, I gave him Sprite for the first time (he calls it “bubbles”) and watched him run around in circles screaming “Hakuna Matata” for the next two hours. When I poured him a second cup he said “Xiexie Mummy” (Thank you Mummy) and gave me a kiss. It was worth the sugar induced mania just for that.

We had a party last Saturday which was mostly a photo-op so that I could prove that I made him a cake for his second birthday. This will come in handy when he’s scouring our iPhoto accounts for proof that we’re bad parents later in life. I made him a Ladybird Cake - he really likes ladybirds. He also really likes tigers but a ladybird seemed like less work. It was still quite a lot of work.

ladybird


Parenting comes with a lot of unnecessary stress. I used to be one of those people who would be of the view that a 2 year old will not remember any birthday party you have for him, barely knows what a birthday is (apart from being acutely aware of a connection between birthdays and cake) and doesn’t really like other children anyway. So why bother getting all het up about it? This, I now know, is not the point.

The point is that two years ago, I made a human being. That was pretty cool (well, actually it was very uncomfortable but no one needs to hear about that today). And for the last two years, we’ve watched him progress from a tiny baby (although at 9.9lbs, maybe we should use the term ‘smallish’ rather than ‘tiny’) into an actual person with opinions and emotions and a strong manipulative streak. He’s wild and funny and amazing. I think that deserves cake.

At bedtime, when he goes through his goodnights - Goodnight Mummy, Goodnight Daddy, Goodnight Nana, Goodnight Uncle Pat, Goodnight Postman Pat, Goodnight Mowgli, Goodnight Doggie, Goodnight Ladybird, Goodnight Bill (Clinton)… - I noticed that Goodnight Chocolate Cake has also now made it onto the list. That’s a sign of a birthday well had.

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Collective Malaise

We’re a crock. Last week - between me, Little A and Mr Oh - we saw six separate doctors. Seven if you count my chiropractor. Jury’s still out on that one although her card says she’s a “Dr.”, it’s possible she just has a PhD in pre-Byzantine literature.

One of my previous bosses used the title “Dr.” on a regular basis and not-infrequently, when people asked me the subject area of his PhD thesis, I had to squirmingly inform them that his PhD was, in fact, honorary. This was usually followed by stunned silence as the outrageousness of the situation clanged loudly around the room. As for people with actual PhDs, I think it’s become uncool to put “Dr.” on your business cards, email signature etc. It might imply that you’re showing off. Why the hell not, I say? If I had the attention span to research and write more than 500 words on an obscure, niche (and let’s face it…frequently boring) topic, I’d have “PhD” tattooed on my knuckles. I would sign my text messages “Dr B” and I would give my mother a handful of business cards to pass to loose acquaintances she bumped into at the local supermarket (my mother tends to baulk at such boastful behavior but perhaps she would be less reticent if my academic achievements were more impressive).

I have to take a break from this ramble to note that I am sitting in a coffee shop (while Little A screams in a nearby kindergarten) and the man beside me has just stood up and departed from his companions with the farewell greeting “Namaste”. I think it’s time to change neighborhoods - clearly, once again, I am not alternative enough to live here.

Anyway, back to the plague. So about a week and a half ago, I watched in horror as a dark red rash of spots and blisters began to spread across the beautiful skin of my precious toddler. Mr Oh thought he looked a lot like Viktor Yushchenko. I am deeply ashamed to admit that my first thought was not, “Is he in danger or pain!?” but rather “Can he still go to kindergarten?!”. I love Little A very much but I’m 8 months pregnant and he’s a 16kg human tornado of destruction and mayhem. My two great fears were that he had either Chicken Pox or the dreaded Hand, Foot and Mouth. Incidentally, Hand, Foot and Mouth has nothing to do with the Foot and Mouth disease that commonly affects cattle…and not just because cows don’t have hands…apparently it’s totally different. Anyway, Hand Foot and Mouth (HFM) is an incredibly mild illness but incredibly contagious and is infectious for about ten days which would mean….that’s right…ten days at home with the toddler equivalent of WWF Summer Slam.

The first pediatrician we saw decided that it ‘probably’ wasn’t chicken pox and it ‘probably’ wasn’t HFM. I was like “Probably doesn’t cut it for me, lady, I need to send this child to school”. She held firm though and her final verdict was that she didn’t have the first clue what was wrong with Little A. After the first 72 hours at home with Little A, I took a taxi across the Huang Pu River (something I try to avoid doing whenever possible) to get a second opinion. Doctor #2 told me that it definitely wasn’t chicken pox (encouraging) and that it was probably a non-contagious auto-immune disease with a long and frightening sounding name. For the first time during this whole affair, I was confronted with the possibility that Little A’s condition was a threat to something other than my mental health. I found, for the first time, wishing that it was HFM and silently promised to keep him home with me forever and ever. One blood test and one urine test later (do you know how hard it is to collect urine from an almost 2 year old?) the doctor said he had no conclusive evidence that it either was or was not above mentioned freaky disease but said that he could not rule out the possibility that it was contagious so I should keep Little A away from all children for a further week, after which point, he cheerfully told me, everything would be fine even though he didn’t have a notion what was wrong with Little A. He charged me €300 for his lack of information and sent us back into quarantine with a friendly wave.

Last week was also the week that Mr Oh partially and inexplicably lost the hearing in his right ear (falling asleep in front of a fan didn't help). In his case, it took three doctors and substantially more money before the "yes, you appear to have partially lost hearing in your right ear and we have no idea what's wrong with you" verdict was delivered. Although one of his doctors did note that foreigners in Shanghai lose part of their hearing quite commonly (?!).

As for my contribution to the general familial medical collapse, I pulled a muscle in my bump which means that I could not lift, control or play with Little A during our ten day confinement. The only one bucking the trend was the Unbornicle who had happily swung round into an upside-down position in preparation for The Long March. It was refreshing not to hear the Chinese ultrasound doctor alarmingly shout “BREEEEECH” during my bi-monthly scan. She looked a bit downcast that she couldn’t find anything wrong. I think I saw the Unbornicle making a rude gesture at her.

So, it was a week best forgotten, but at least Mr Oh couldn't hear me very well when he arrived home each evening to my weeping and wailing. His temporary hearing loss may have saved his own mental health and happily a dose of "suck 'em, and see" steroids opened his auditory faculties to the domestic racket again.
.

Thankfully, it’s now Monday again and Little A is back in his new kindergarten although his week at home with me has totally undone all the good we did settling him into school and there were many, many tears and much leg-clinging when I dropped him off this morning. I can still hear his plaintiff screams of “Mommy…please….” reverberating round my head as I sit here in this café waiting to pick him up again. It’s now time to go. Cheerio!

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Omniblog

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.
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Little A and the Ray-Ray

Uh oh, I forgot to write. Actually, I didn’t forget at all…I was just too tired. Blogging is lower than sleeping on my ‘to do’ list (but higher than tweezing eyebrows). It’s actually China’s fault. Its language is too difficult and I need every spare second I have to learn how to write “starch” in Chinese. This was a word we learned in class today and it almost sparked a riot as it turns out most people didn’t even know what it meant in English and felt unmoved to commit it to memory in Chinese. I will admit that ‘starch’ (or 淀粉 as the Chinese say) wouldn’t be on my top thousand most useful words to know but I am somewhat surprised that this was the word upon which my fellow classmates chose to fixate. I would have thought that the chapters in which we were instructed to learn the words for ‘greasepaint’, ‘chrysanthemum’ or ‘turtle’ would have provided a more natural point of complaint. Actually, I use the word ‘turtle’ quite a lot in my every day dialogue as Little A has a reptilian bath pal that goes by that moniker (well, it’s more like ‘too-too’) but I also use the word ‘teletubby’ on a near daily basis and yet feel no need to be able to say it in Chinese. Despite this, I do know the Chinese word for Teletubby as Ayi helpfully told me yesterday (unsolicited) but I have mostly wiped that conversation from my memory as I object to the notion that La-la is called something different in Chinese i.e. something other than La-la.

So, big news here in Shanghai…Little A has learned to speak. Mostly English, some Chinese, a bit of Random. He’s been saying ‘Mama’ and ‘Daddy’ for a while. Sadly, he seems to be slipping away from ‘Mama’ and towards ‘Mammy’ without taking into consideration my firm belief that I am not a ‘Mammy’. Don’t see myself as a ‘Mummy’ or a ‘Mommy’ either so hoping this is one of the words he sticks with the Chinese for (conveniently ‘Mama’). His first few words after that were generally unsurprising - bottle (bobo), no (nononononono), food (foo), raisin (ray-ray), bath (ba), Teletubbies (la-la), water (wawa), the aforementioned turtle, all types of vehicles (choo-choo, ka, baish), a whole host of body parts most of which are contained in the lyrics of Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes, doggie, bird, socks and also the one word that highlights his Irishness…tea. He’s also got a few odd ones in there - ‘umbrella’ (bella) is a favourite and for a while I thought he was saying ‘cheese’ but eventually realized, to my horror, that he was actually saying ‘Jesus’. Have made strong mental note to watch my language. The word ‘uh-oh’ is also a good one and covers a multitude of sins, many of which involve food in places that are not designed to hold food e.g. my pencil case. He can also count up to six, but excluding five (wah-too-sree-foe-sis).

There are a few Chinese words in there. He says ‘xiexie’ which means thank you (because clearly only the Chinese speakers in his life intend to teach him manners). The Chinese think he’s hilarious and he says ‘xiexie’ to pretty much everyone he comes across in the hope that after he says it, they give him food. They often do so it isn’t a bad strategy. Bizarrely, if I tell him to ‘say thank you’ he says ‘xiexie’ so I think he knows that they mean the same thing. He also says ‘shou’ (hand) in Chinese as well as ‘duzi’ (tummy) and ‘meimei’ (younger female friend/sister). And tonight when I said it was time for bed he said ‘bu yao’ which means ‘don’t want’ which now means he has two languages in which to say ‘no’. Great.

It’s a pretty limited dictionary for the moment but as long as people know when he wants ray-ray (all the time) then he’s happy. He had his first full-blown toddler tantrum this morning in the kitchen because I wouldn’t give him ray-ray for breakfast and tried to pawn him off with some other kind of foo. I tried to compromise by adding some ray-ray into his other foo but this was not the correct thing to do as I subsequently discovered when faced with the full force of his outrage that I would desecrate a ray-ray by mixing it into other foo. He spent a full twenty minutes in complete meltdown - head back, red face, wailing RAY-RAY over and over again while shaking the table with his hands. I was totally mesmerized and transfixed by the sheer depth of his raisin rage. It seemed limitless. I think I might have been slightly less amused by the whole thing if it had happened in public or if I had been under huge pressure to get out on time. Presumably the public meltdowns are coming to a supermarket/restaurant/bus near me soon. I don’t think I’ll mind too much though because everyone is staring shamelessly at him/us anyway - although the floor is very dirty in China so I hope he has the good sense to tantrum upright.
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The Best Laid Plans...

P1176347 - Version 2
I’m not sure what the end of that saying is. If I were writing it, it would be “The best laid plans…will be thwarted by your toddler”. I make plans every day - all of them doomed. I plan to get Little A up, dressed and out within an hour. Then, invariably, one of the following (or several of the following in any combination) will happen:
  • Banana mushed into hair;
  • Bowl of half eaten Weetabix turned upside down on head;
  • Refusal to wear socks;
  • Removal of nappy while mother looking for trousers;
  • Peeing on socks once nappy removed;
  • Throwing toothbrush of mother into toilet;
  • Picking toothbrush out of toilet and trying to brush teeth with it;
  • Throwing self on floor and going totally limp when mother trying to leave house;
  • Adopting plank position and going totally rigid when mother trying to put in pram;
  • Screaming as if skin were on fire because banana is being washed out of hair;
  • Screaming for new banana.

Other ridiculous plans I make include:
  • Finishing a book that is not either Dear Zoo, Noisy Pirates or Where’s Spot;
  • Getting through a day without having my glasses knocked off my face by an angry swipe;
  • Going out for dinner without secretly wishing I was already in bed asleep;
  • Blow-drying my hair (I think the last time I properly blow-dried my hair was June 2012);
  • Doing fun, crafty activities with Little A that do not end up with Little A’s mouth turning green and/or blue handprints on the sofa.

What I need are fewer plans and an ability to be fully functional on four hours sleep. I read on some website that, when you become a parent, “Happy Hour” is the hour between when your child goes to bed and when you do. I’d say right now, it’s more like a Happy Quarter Hour. There have been times of late when I actually go to bed earlier than Little A.

Luckily for me, at some stage I managed to convince Mr Oh that putting Little A to bed is a daddy duty. As a result, I’m usually done parenting at 8pm (and ready for bed) and Mr Oh is in full command of the ship. Now Little A has generally been a good sleeper. A bath, a massage, a bit of dancing (he likes Daft Punk), a book, a bottle and he’s out like a light until morning. It was for this reason that Mr Oh felt fairly secure making an arrangement to meet friends in the pub at 10pm last Saturday night to watch the rugby. Oh, the plans…they’ll be our downfall. The toddlers, you see, they sense the plans. And they do not like them.

That night, Little A did not go to bed in time for Mr Oh to watch the rugby. He refused and, really, what can you do with a child who refuses to sleep? They can’t be forced to sleep, they can’t be reasoned with and, sadly, they can’t be drugged. There’s nothing for it but to wait until they themselves decide they’ve spun it out long enough to thwart your beloved plans. In this case, that was around 2am (nowhere to go at 2am).

You may ask what I was doing while Mr Oh’s one night off a quarter went drifting off into the abyss. The truth is that I was asleep and not particularly inclined to be awake. Would I not take over for a few hours and let the poor man go out and enjoy himself? Well, I would have except for three things:
1. Just the previous night I myself had been on Little A duty as Mr Oh had a “work dinner” (the “quotes” do not in any way imply that his “work dinner” was anything other than above board - it’s just that all-you-can-eat sushi isn’t what I’d describe as a tough assignment). I, too, foolishly had plans for that particular night - I planned to sleep. As midnight approached, I was lying in my bed while Little A sat by my head, pulling my ear and singing ‘La-la eh-oh’ repeatedly for the best part of an hour while using my forehead as a drum.
2. I was coming down with a head cold which was kindly given to me by Little A some days earlier when he decided to put his banana (that he had been chewing) into my mouth by way of showing me that he was finally grasping the concept of sharing.
3. I was feeling nauseous on account of the second baby which is proving that it is perfectly capable of thwarting plans despite the fact that it is unborn and about the size of a lemon.

I think that it’s safe to say we are doomed to be thwarted for the next five to ten years at least.
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Hello Bali!

P1196455I’ve been on a break, and not just any break, I went on a ‘sun holiday’. I don’t think I’ve ever gone on a sun holiday before. I don’t like the sun. I barely like holidays. I don’t like heat. I definitely don’t like sand and I hate the feeling of salt on my skin. I’m also not a fan of cocktails…except for Bloody Marys…thankfully they had Bloody Marys in Bali, otherwise I wouldn’t have gone. I also don’t like visiting locations of religious worship - churches, temples, mosques, fairy circles - they all seem to be an integral part of holidays. Nothing like trying to insert a random ‘cultural’ element to your booze-soaked hedonism to give it legitimacy and gravitas. I would rather spend the day strapped to an ant hill than have to visit a gallery or museum. All in all - I’m part killjoy, part philistine. I also hate flying.

Imagine my surprise when I actually had a wonderful time on my sun holiday. The presence of Little A seems to have made all the difference but not in a smushy ‘I’m happy just being with my child’ kind of way (because that is patently untrue). It’s because toddlers and I have the same outlook. We do not want to drink vodka from a bucket. We want to go to bed on time. We do not want to do ‘stuff’ unless stuff involves splashing in the water, napping and eating. We do not want to tan. We do not care about culture unless culture involves peanut sauce (thankfully, in Bali, peanut sauce is a key component of the culture). We don’t like sand in our pants. The only difference between me and the toddler is that he doesn’t mind if there’s a dead gecko in his bed…I really would have. Luckily the dead gecko wasn’t in my bed or I wouldn’t be so gushing about my holiday.

Our lovely two week break consisted of a three day stay in Singapore followed by twelve nights in Bali. I learned a lot about many things during this brief period - here are some of them:

1. Singapore is an amazing place to bring a toddler on holiday. Who knew? The zoo, the bird park, the botanical gardens…and that’s about all we could manage in the three days. We could have stayed for ten and never be bored. I cannot say enough great things about the zoo - it should be one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Screw the pyramids, they have neither a water playground nor white tigers. The visit also re-ignited my love for queues, order and social hygiene. I love you Singapore - you’re everything I want in a country. (In contrast, there was a woman beside me on the 911 bus in Shanghai this morning clipping her finger nails and spitting on the ground.)

2. If your child gets sunburnt - you are officially a bad parent. Plus, everyone will know you’re a bad parent. It’s not like psychological cruelty or emotional neglect where the scars will only show up years later on the ward. If you are a bad parent on holiday - your child is a public beacon of your shame. Thankfully, I am not a bad parent. Sun-cream is expensive, only mildly effective and sand sticks to it which gives me the heebie-jeebies. The key, rather, is outfitting your child in a baby burka - from neck, to ankles to wrist - all of it should be covered in material. Gone are the days of children wearing little swimsuits or, God forbid, nothing at all. Nowadays, more is more. Hats are good too. Suncream can be limited to hands, feet and face.

3. The Balinese love children. No need to worry about babysitters. You just arrive at the restaurant, someone whisks your child out of your arms, wanders off with them and usually they turn up again by dessert.

4. An iguana is not always an iguana. Sometimes it is a really large gecko. So, when you see what looks like an iguana clinging to the thatchy roof above your bed take a moment to think before you go screaming hysterically to the front desk that there’s a baby komodo dragon lurking in your room. You will look stupid when they tell you it’s just a gecko. You will still feel justified in your panic on account of the fact that the ‘gecko’ is the length and width of your forearm and looks suspiciously like the iguana you saw in the zoo only days before…but the staff will just think you’re a crazy nut who doesn’t know a gecko from her forearm. Four separate members of staff will try to reassure you that the gecko will not fall on your head as you sleep - they will be right - it will not (but maybe that’s because you never really fall asleep knowing that it might).

5. When your child falls headfirst into a fishpond, don’t panic, grab an ankle. Children are easier to carry by the legs than by the arms - there’s more grip. So outraged will he feel at being fished out of the soup like a common grouper, upside down and dripping with fish-water - he will not fall in again.

6. If you absolutely must have culture, Bali is one of the nicest places in the world for it. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of temple visiting now and again. We went to three on our trip which seems like a lot but when there’s a temple every ten paces, they’re hard to avoid.

7. Don’t diss family resorts. They rock. Authentic experiences are for young people and hippies.

8. Never go anywhere without Tiger Balm and raisins. I don’t think this needs explaining.

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The Andrex Toddler

PC180903.JPG
Sometimes I look at Little A and think he might be the reincarnated spirit of my parents’ dog, Rocco. Were it not for the fact that Rocco did not die until Little A was several months old, I would be certain that our child is channelling chocolate labrador. Given the crossover in boy/dog alive time, he may just be a chocolate coated labradoresque toddler.

Indications that Little A may, in fact, be the reincarnated spirit of Rocco:

1. He eats everything. Left to his own devices, he would eat until he keels over from either nausea or exhaustion. People who use the term ‘child-sized portions’ haven’t met Little A. I wouldn’t take him on in a broccoli fritter eating competition…there’s only one winner there and it isn’t mama.

2. He’s friendly. He bounds up to random Chinese people on the street and licks them (ok, sometimes it’s biting). It’s not hygienic but it’s better than head butting the ground (which is what he does if you try to keep him away from his people).

3. He bites. I have a red welt on my collarbone where he bit me yesterday in a fit of exuberance. I catch myself shouting ‘no bite!’ at him like I used to do with Rocco. I must occasionally remind myself that my son is not actually a labrador.

4. In the long tradition of labrador puppies, he likes playing with toilet paper. Only yesterday, when I was momentarily distracted, he managed to locate two brand new toilet rolls and gleefully threw them into the bath I was running for him. He found this hilarious. He knew he did wrong - he didn’t care. Thankfully we don’t have any stairs or he’d be re-enacting the Andrex ads on a daily basis.

5. He needs a lot of exercise. As AA Milne said “A bear, however hard he tries, grows tubby without exercise”. He needs to be tired out on a daily basis. Running around in circles, chasing things and swimming are favorite past times.

6. He needs to be walked. But like Rocco, he doesn’t like walking under instruction (he’s a free spirit that way). I’ve got a little backpack for him with a…um…safety rope attached. It’s not a lead, I swear (I don’t walk my baby, really). He needs to be kept on the ‘safety rope’. You might think he’s walking in an appropriately orderly fashion and then suddenly he’ll see a leaf in the middle of the road, think “oooh, leaf!” and zoom off after it - for someone who’s only learned to walk a few months ago, he’s surprisingly nippy.

7. He sheds. Mostly his socks.

8. Like Rocco, he does not like being washed and goes ballistic when I try to rinse his hair. I think he’s being a tad unreasonable on this point - at least I’m not trying to rinse him outside in winter with a hose.

7. He’s also good natured, playful and he likes having his belly rubbed.

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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.
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Poopocalypse

PA045579 - Version 2
It was a normal morning. Little A woke at 7.30 - happy and gurgly - making sweet little toddler noises. We played together for a few minutes and then went to get breakfast. I took off his nappy to let his skin breathe and popped him in his high chair. Breakfast was uneventful - we had poached eggs on toast and most of it went in a mouth (either mine or his). Only a mini amount ended up on the wall. I packed his lunch bag and lifted him out of his high chair. I was just about to bring him into his room to dress him when I noticed a smear of egg yolk on the table. If that stuff is allowed to dry it turns into concrete. I put Little A on the ground and ran into the kitchen to grab a cloth and wipe down the table. No more than ten second later I was finished and planning out Little A’s outfit for the day in my head (dungarees, t-shirt, hoodie - dressing boys isn’t exactly fine art).

I walked over to where he sat on my lovely, green, silk rug. “What’s that you’re playing with buddy?” I cooed. “Are you playing with conkers?”. Wtf was I thinking…conkers? There are no feckin trees in Shanghai. My eyes widened with horror. It’s not conkers…it’s poo!!! He looks up and smiles at me from atop his poo pile as he continued to do what he does best, smush things into other things - rug, face, hair, bellybutton. Waaah - I wail and grab him off the floor. “Oh goodie” he is no doubt cackling in his head as I lift him onto my hip “more things to smush things into - t-shirt, arm, neck, eye”.

I run frantically into the bathroom and turn on the water. I rub soap over areas that need it - which is most of him - and try to get some water on him. He starts screaming as if the water were acid. He thrashes and fights and tries to put a bacteria infested finger in my mouth and then, when that doesn’t work, in his own mouth. “NO!” I scream as I pull his finger away from his mouth. He throws back his head with rage and then, as if delving into the bank of bold toddler innate knowledge, he throws his arms above his head and goes limp. I am now left with 13kg of deadweight in my hands coated with a slimy melange of hand soap and poo. He slides to the ground and starts scrabbling away on his hands and knees leaving ‘muddy’ handprints in his wake. I grab an ankle before it slips beyond my grasp and haul him back. I lift him forcefully and hold him under the tap which seems to have reduced to a trickle and then…drip, drip, drip…nothing at all. Today is not the day they’re turning the water off to work on the mains, is it? It can’t be! Surely not. It is.

45 minutes and 243 baby wipes later, we’ve both stopped crying and we’re ready to go to playschool. I just hope no one hugs him too closely today.
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Yi Jia Jia Ju

norbo
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.


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111 Boxes

huaihai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Shanghai Morning

bank

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BMW

P9225430
One of the biggest challenges about China so far has been working out how to transport ourselves from point A to point B without having an accident at point C (point C being anywhere and everywhere between point A and B). This is particularly challenging when it’s just me and Baby A hitting the town.

There are a few options - none of them great.

1. Taxi
Pros:
  • Taxis are cheap as cucumbers. The average journey costs me about €2, even if we’re traveling quite a distance.
  • They’re also often the quickest way to get around if points A and B aren’t linked directly by public transport.
Cons:
  • Taxis are deathtraps. By law, there have to be seat belts and, in defense of taxi drivers, the belts are always there - but often the things you plug them into aren’t. The middle lap belts are never there and they’d be the most useful for strapping Baby A down as I reckon side-impact is the biggest crash risk (my thoughts are all sunshine and rainbows sometimes…). It’s not feasible to bring a carseat with us when we go out because they’re too big to carry - plus the whole no seatbelt thing kind of rules that one out. The taxi drivers are also, for the most part, homicidal maniacs. They weave in and out of lanes on the motorway, often missing other cars by millimeters. They speed down the wrong side of the street as if laughing in the face of serious bodily injury. They break lights. They appear to make a sport of attempting to run over pedestrians especially when pedestrians are crossing the road at a green man. Being in a Shanghai taxi is not unlike being in Grand Theft Auto, without the theft and without the ‘just a video game’ aspect. They’re also icky - like the petri dishes of the transport world harboring infection and disease in their rickety, sticky unwashed cabeese. *shudder*.
  • Do you need more? If the fact that taxis are like rollercoasters with the bolts loosened isn’t enough to rule them out, I have more. They’re impossible to get at rush hour. You can’t book them in advance. The drivers are obnoxious and frequently shout at me if they don’t like where I’ve asked them to take me. I do not like being shouted at, even when I haven’t a clue what they’re saying, I still know that it’s shouting. I want to learn good Chinese for the sole purpose of throwing years of pent-up taxi rage back at them. Just you wait, when I get to the chapter that teaches me the vocabulary to say “you are going to go straight to Buddhist hell for endangering the lives of innocent passengers with the reckless and feckless showboating you claim is driving” I will be hopping into the next available taxi to practice my homework.
  • Baby A hates taxis. He won’t sit still in them (considering he isn’t buckled down in any way this isn’t surprising). He keeps reaching for the door handle and screaming his head off which gives the unfortunate impression to passers by that I’ve kidnapped him. Thankfully they’re not too bothered with white women kidnapping white babies here in China. I tried giving him the iPhone to amuse him during one particularly trantrummy journey with the result that he threw up all over me, all over himself and all over the taxi. As luck would have it, the taxi driver was so busy shouting abuse at the world around him that he didn’t notice the sound or smell of baby projectile vomit until after we’d exited his vehicle. By then we were far away and I was comforting a sobbing Baby A with vows that I would never make him get in another nasty taxi again.
  • Enough? I think so.

2. Metro
Pros:
  • It’s fast, it’s clean and it’s easy to navigate without Chinese.
Cons:
  • There are only ‘up’ escalators and no ‘down’ ones so maneuvering Baby A and his hotwheels can be tricky. I think I’m setting records for number of steps a baby has been bumped down in a buggy. Most of the time, I lift him out and put him on my hip holding him with one arm while I lift the buggy with the other arm. You try doing that with a 13kg thrashing toddler, a 5kg buggy, flip-flops and wet steps.
  • During rush hour, the metro is jim-jammed so the buggy has to be folded with one arm (while carrying toddler who refuses to be put down) and slung over shoulder like sawn off shotgun. With no free hands, it’s harder to control Baby A when he tries to rip the earrings clean out of the ear of the woman standing beside us. Thankfully, they’re clip ons.

3. Bus
Pros:
  • It’s so cheap as to almost be free. Depending on the class of bus, a journey either costs us about 15c or 25c.
  • It’s a fun place to hang out and meet old Chinese people. Baby A is a big fan of old Chinese people and they’re exceedingly fond of him - even when he pokes them in the eye. He stands on the seats, shrieks and generally comports himself like the Queen of Sheba in small boy-child form. The Chinese think he is hilarious with his shouting, pointing and general mayhem. They pick him up and pass him round. Sometimes it’s hard to retrieve him when our stop comes up - too much fun is being had on the 8am party bus. As we’re alighting he often waves magnanimously and blows kisses to everyone. He’s going to be so disappointed the first time I take him on Dublin Bus.
Cons:
  • The buses are not buggy friendly so I have to carry Baby A on a hip-shelf or sling. He’s not exactly lithe. The Chinese though are very aware of this and I have always been offered a seat. As soon as I get on the bus, some young Chinese student bounds out of his/her seat and offers it to me. It’s a far cry from the way things are done in Brussels, or even Dublin.
  • The stop information is all in Chinese so it can be difficult to work out where you’re going if you don’t read any Chinese. My reading is coming along quite well so it doesn’t bother me so much. I’ve never seen another foreigner on the bus - I think they mostly stick to taxis and metros. Lots of foreigners also have drivers. Sometimes, on my tired days, I dream of being chauffeured about the place by my own private driver but then we’d miss out on all the buscapades and I would miss out on developing my language skills to the point where I could hold conversations like:
    • OCP (Old Chinese Person): What a cute girl!
    • Me: He’s a boy.
    • OCP: Are you sure? He looks like a girl.
    • Me: Really? He’s definitely a boy.
    • OCP: Does he speak Chinese?
    • Me: He doesn’t speak anything. He’s only 14 months.
    • OCP: Are you sure? He looks about 3.
    • Me: I’m sure.
    • OCP: I think he speaks Chinese. He said ‘mama’. ‘Mama’ is Chinese.
    • Me: *Silenced*
    • OCP: (To Baby A in Chinese) Say ‘mama’.
    • Baby A: Mama.
    • OCP: He speaks Chinese, I told you.

4. Walking
Pros:
  • It’s free. It’s exercise. Baby A likes it. It’s a good way to discover things.
Cons:
  • It’s not a good idea to do too much of it on a bad air day.
  • Crossing the road is like running through no man’s land with a team of robots throwing car shaped rocks at you (see point on taxis, also applies to all other cars and buses). Even when you have a green man to cross the road, cars turning in any direction from anywhere - as long as they’re turning - can drive through the pedestrian crossing. Supposedly, the pedestrians have right of way but there’s no point in playing chicken with a gold-plated hummer when all you’ve got in your defense is the moral high ground and a biting toddler. A few times, I’ve defiantly taken the chance that no-one really wants to run over the foreign mother with the young child but I should probably stop playing Russian roulette with Baby A’s life and just play it safe.

Conclusion:

There’s no simple way to get around Shanghai with a toddler. It all depends on where we’re going, what we’re doing at the other end, what the quickest way of getting there is etc. We get the bus every day to and from playcare. We usually get the metro if we’re going somewhere a bit further afield and we walk if we’re within walking distance. It takes a bit of planning and a bit of lifting but it’s always a more interesting experience - good and bad - than life with a driver and car. The only thing I generally don’t do on my own with Baby A are taxis - for reason I have extensively outlined above.

As our Shanghainese estate agent, David, told me once when I asked him if he had a car, ”You know I only use BMW….Bus Metro Walk”. Works for us too.

Cultural Observation Point: While I am always offered a seat on the bus or metro when carrying Baby A, no one has ever offered to help me up or down the stairs when I’m struggling with the buggy. I’ve thought about this and have come to the conclusion that it’s probably because, unlike on the bus or metro, there’s no sign on the wall telling them that they should.







Comments

Paracetemol, Pandas and Parties


mrpanda

I’ve got a new design for my blog! It took me hours of blood, sweat and Visa to sort it all out but I think it looks pretty good.

I have a few hours on my hands today as Baby A is sleeping for Dublin. He has a fever. It’s the first one he’s ever had so naturally I wanted to ring an ambulance to take him to the nearest emergency room. I didn’t. Mostly because an ambulance was likely to cost me the best part of €1,000 as they’re all privatized. Plus from the look of them, you’re likely to come out of them worse off than you went in. I’d trust a blind Vietnamese rickshaw driver to transport a patient more safely. Can I put a price on my baby’s health? No, but Calpol is cheaper and more effective - plus I brought it in industrial quantities in my suitcase. I only brought two pairs of shoes with me to China because I needed six bottles of Calpol. Mother of the year, right here.

There is a hospital a few doors down but it appears to be only for people with ‘diabetic foot disease’. I’d rather not take him there. The patients - the ones with diabetic foot disease - like to lounge about on the benches on the neighborhood park with their lower limbs in various states of bandage or removal. When all the benches are occupied by sleeping amputees in gaping green gowns, the diabetics lie on the ground instead. It’s like a zombie apocalypse down there. I don’t take Baby A to the park either.

I think Baby A’s fever could be down to teething. Alternatively, he might have picked something up at yesterday’s birthday party. Thirty screaming children running around the place touching surfaces and sneezing on each other is baiting a pandemic. It also convinced me that I am never going to host a children’s birthday party. It was like a midget zombie apocalypse powered by Energizer. Baby A has just started to walk so he toddled around after the older kids who trampled mercilessly over him and whacked him indiscriminately with spongy objects (his idea of a good time). There were small styrofoam balls on the floor that the toddlers were trying to eat, there was cake on the wall, there were pizza crusts in the ball pool, the dads were drinking beer outside and ignoring the whole thing. So overwhelmed was the birthday girl (who was turning four) that she spent much of her own party cowering in a corner buried under a pile of presents and looking shell-shocked.

This was all before the arrival of Mr Panda - the obnoxious, French magician dressed in a creepy bunny outfit who kept snapping at the children for not paying attention and complaining about the heat (why is someone called ‘Mr Panda’ dressed like a rabbit anyway, and why is he French??). Mr Panda clearly had not grasped that the average age of his audience was approximately 24 months and that the 25 seconds of captive attention they gave him had maxed out their concentration reserves for the week. “Aye cannut wuhk in zis heeet. I weel nut begeen unteel ze cay-os iz over. Humf.” I think the fact that his first three balloons burst as he was trying to wrangle them into impressive inflated sculptures just pushed him over the edge. We left just before he started a full scale, giant panda bunny meltdown. The kids loved him though - the screaming, angry French bunny thing didn’t phase them. Baby A was standing in front of him in awe. He was a giant bunny/panda after all. Who cares if he’s cursing in French?

Whatever about moving to China, there’s no culture shock quite like finally realizing that you’re an actual, real live parent and that your future is filled with mayhem and sprinkles.
Comments

Neighbourhood Nudity

skyline
Honestly, if I see another Chinese man walking around with his shirt hoiked up and his belly poking out, I’m going to walk up to him and rub it. No, actually I’m not, because that’s icky but I really don’t understand this need that Chinese men have to walk around with their tummies on display as if perhaps they might suddenly break from the crowd, pull their shoulders back and start doing the Carebear stare in the middle of downtown Shanghai. If you don’t know what the Carebear Stare is, see photo below, that’ll clear it up (I’m all about the pictures this week).

CareBearBigWish_CBStare

For some reason, I find the pulled up shirt more disturbing than no shirt at all (I also see plenty of this). And it’s not the young, lithe, Sino-pop youth that are flashing their pot-b’s to all and sundry…it’s the paunchy and the elderly than are most prone to this kind of behaviour. I think they ostensibly do it because they are too warm and it seems like a quick, convenient way to cool down without having to invest in a hand fan. My view is that it’s some kind of middle-aged mating call. “Look at me, I have many dumplings.” Some ladies might like that kind of thing.

That said, Chinese fat bellies are not shunned by society - quite the opposite in fact - to be chubby seems to be quite the attribute - a source of pride. Maybe it’s because Buddha is a portly, half naked, man figure. In China, it’s ok to say that someone is fat. People tell me that Baby A is fat all the time. Baby A smiles and nods cheerfully so I don’t think it’s giving him a complex. It certainly hasn’t put him off his food anyway. He responds to the compliment by intermittently pulling up his t-shirt on the bus, thus allowing older ladies to admire his well-tended tum-tum.

I’m waiting for the day when Mr Oh starts roaming the streets with his t-shirt knotted half way up his torso and his solar plexus exposed for public viewing. I might have to fatten him up a bit first, no point showing your belly if you don’t have a substantial offering. A bit of fake tan should sort out the milky sheen too.




Comments

The Fan Man


fan



Baby A has known ten different ‘homes’ in the last four months. He is essentially a vagrant. He must wake up every morning and wonder if he’ll go to sleep that night in the same cot, the same house, the same continent. I’m not sure, at thirteen months, he fully understands the concept of travel, especially if it takes place in something other than his pram. When we go in the lift, he thinks I’m just annoyingly choosing to stand still in the tiny room again. He has no idea that he currently lives thirty floors up in the air.

I feel that Baby A needs some stability in his life. A constant. Something that he can derive comfort from when he feels unsure - something soft and portable. A sponge perhaps? Or maybe something more purpose built. Baby A, sadly, has no interest in cuddly toys. He likes distinctly uncuddly things. His first attempt to bond with an inanimate object was earlier in the summer in Cork when he took a liking to a wooden spoon. He crawled around with the spoon in his hand, ate with the spoon in his hand and went for walks with the spoon in his hand. At night, Mr Oh would creep into his room about half an hour after he fell asleep and gently pry the spoon out of his clenched fist in order to prevent him from inadvertently poking himself in the eye in his sleep. We tried to replace the spoon with a soft stuffed dog (he likes dogs). It didn’t work. I’d give him the dog and he’d throw it at my head. He would then shout until someone gave him the spoon.

When we left Cork, we had to leave the spoon behind. It was then that Baby A became attached to a green and yellow plastic spade. Same story. He would wake up from a nap with spade marks on the side of his face from sleeping with the object of his affection gripped tightly under his head (because he suspected his daddy of daylight spade thievery). One sad day, after weeks of being crushed under the iron grip of a willful baby, the handle of the little green spade cracked and that was the end of the spade. We gave him an identical blue and red spade but he was having none of it. In the time honored tradition of communicating his displeasure, he threw the blue and red spade at my head.

On arriving in China, Baby A quickly took up with a plastic fan that we got free in Din Tai Fung. It has barely been out of his sight in three weeks. He likes to swan around playcare with it in his hand like a baby Karl Lagerfeld. He stands at the toy kitchen mixing invisible soup with a plastic ladle while fanning himself (and occasionally, if he’s in a giving mood, anyone who stops by to play with him).

I wish he’d just find a stuffed dinosaur or something that he likes instead. You may think that a plastic fan is harmless, but it’s not. Earlier this morning, Baby A crawled over to me to give me a big hug and a lovely kiss that smelled distinctly of puke. I spent the next half an hour gingerly exploring the apartment looking for the inevitable puddle of regurgitated croissant that no doubt came up when he accidentally stuck the handle of the fan too far down his gullet. It was near the front door under his walker.

I fear though I may be fighting a losing battle. A generous passerby gave him a second plastic fan this afternoon. He’s discovering that it’s hard to crawl with a fan in each hand so he’s taken to sitting in the middle of the room waving his hands about like a baby-proofed Edward Scissorhands - see photo above.

Tomorrow morning we take up residence in our new semi-permanent apartment. It’s a very exciting step for us (even if we won’t have any furniture until our shipment arrives in October). Finally, Baby A will have a home - probably the first home he’ll remember when he’s older. I’m hoping to lose both fans in the move. If he needs a comfort item, I’ll be standing by with a stuffed dinosaur.

Comments

Separation Anxiety

babya


Before Baby A happened, I honestly did not understand this whole crazy, emotional motherhood thing. Mr Oh and I said things like “the baby will fit into our life, we will not become totally baby focussed”. We were like Tweedledum and Tweedledee bouncing along aimlessly in the forest of dumbass.

I now sit nervously in the café beside the creche straining to hear a sound that might be the sound of my baby not being entirely happy. I am that woman. I am quite disappointed in myself but also kind of amazed that I’m so weird and insanimommy. Baby A is totally fine in creche - or ‘playcare’ as well call it here in Sinoland. He’s not crazy about the other babies. He doesn’t quite understand why they have to be there but he likes the stuff. They’ve got good play-kitchens, solid walkers and drawers full of plastic bouncy nondescript colorful things - winner.

I’m very lucky we’re not in Ireland. I don’t have to go back to work and drop him into the icy cold waters of 8-6 creching with no warning. He’s in playcare now from 8:30 to 12:30. I go with him for an hour, leave for an hour then go back and stay with him until he’s too tired to steal the other kids’ sippy cups (this happens at about noon). I’m in the playcare so much that some of the other toddlers and I have bonded. We hang out reading stories and having tea parties. Baby A mostly ignores me. He occasionally makes the food sign so that I bring him peeled tangerines, but otherwise, I’m superfluous to his needs. I could probably duck out for the whole four hours and he’d be fine. But I stay. I don’t think I’m ready to accept that he’s okay without me - that he can be happy, and develop and exist without me.

I read somewhere (when Baby A was very small) that parenthood is, from birth, a continuous process of letting go. That was a bit of a shock - I thought he’d be with me most of the time until he was thirty. I felt like I’d just got him, I didn’t want to start letting him go. I still don’t. But I realize also that he’s bored with me and, for him, I need a life outside of him. Just a small one, nothing too crazy - I don’t want to party in stilettos or even drink not-in-my-pyjamas - I maybe just want to go to the supermarket without the countdown to meltdown. I would quite honestly like to stand in the tea aisle and think about what kind of herbal infusion I would like. I could even pick up a box or two and look at the ingredients. I wouldn’t have to worry about whether I had enough croissant to last another 6 minutes.

The problem with playcare is not Baby A - it’s me. I might want to stand in the tea aisle for two minutes without being harried by a perpetually hungry, pre-verbal megalomaniac but any more than two minutes and I’d miss him. I miss him when he sleeps. I miss him when he’s out of my sight at all.

I like to think that the difference between me and the crazies is that I’m playing a long game. I don’t want to be insanimommy any more than I want Baby A to be tied to my apron strings (if all my aprons weren’t in the faraway shipment, alternatively he could be tied to the drawstring of my linen jammies or the brassy chain of my faux Chanel purse). He’s going to go to playcare and I’m going to do other things - like study and exercise and maybe drink in something that are not jammies (although hopefully not when he’s in playcare because that’s too early, even by my standards). He’ll still love me when he’s older. He’ll still ring me twice a week and he won’t roll his eyes when I talk. He’ll be well balanced and confident and secure, even though I left him for an hour a day when he was 13 months old.

I’m upping it to two hours a day next week. I may have to be flexible on the phone calls.

Comments

Putting the A in Depriv-A-tion

mini+micro


Baby A needs to go to school or something. His daily activities need to be more varied and constructive than mushing watermelon into the sofa and biting my shins. He has had no home to speak of for over two months, no stability, no routine, no other babies to play with, nowhere to play with other babies even if he did manage to find them (the marble floor of the serviced apartment does not have a lot of give).

I would like to say his toys are winging their way over to China as we speak, along with the rest of our belongings, but that would be a lie. They are schlepping. The long drag, I can hear the containers sigh with the chug-chug of it all. We have been informed that it will be October before our stuff is here. October! That is two months from now. It’s because I joked with the movers about ‘taking the slow boat to China’, isn’t it? They thought I meant it. They put our stuff on the slow boat, the one powered by sealions.

So Baby A has no toys and will have no toys until October. Toys here are apparently made with toxic plastic, lead paint and grenades. I brought lots of books for him which was a stupid move - the child is 12 months old. He’s very smart but he can’t read and he doesn’t know the difference between a dinosaur and a camel so it’s all kind of lost on him. He has the iPad but he has technology fatigue already and has lost interest in it.

He likes remote controls so he has already inadvertently changed the settings on the TV so that doesn’t work anymore. He likes plugs which is a fascination I’m trying not to foster but we have a big bag of plugs and wires and he’s just so happy wrapping himself up in them and trying to stick different ones into the wall sockets.

We felt sorry for him, and guilty for moving him across the world with nothing but a plastic spade and a toy snake for company. We bought him a Mini-Micro scooter. It’s like a scooter with a seat so he can sit on it and then when he’s older, you remove the seat and, ta da!, it’s a scooter. Needless to say, it was very expensive and he has no interest in it. He likes the alan key that comes with it though.

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The Shanghainers

P8155214

Yesterday, Baby A and I went to work with Mr Oh. Work consisted of getting up at 6am and boarding a bus to a Chinese tourist water town with a group of 20 other people. Half of the group were students of Chinese literature from Fudan - one of China’s top universities - with the other half comprising the world’s leading Joycean scholars.

Baby A and I could pass for neither. We were too old and too young, respectively, to pass for Chinese literature students or, indeed, students of any kind unless one of us is remarkably prodigious and the other is *gasp* mature. Although, physically we may have blended passably with the other group, the fear there would be that someone might start a conversation with us. “Have you read much Joyce?”, they might ask. “No” we would reply (or I would reply because Baby A would be busy rubbing bean paste from the cake that one of the students slipped to him along the seam of the Joycean scholar’s trouser leg). “Have you read any Joyce?” they might continue, deflated. “No”, I would reply. They would be disappointed. This would be before they noticed what Baby A had been up to. Disappointment would turn to barely concealed rage. I would apologize profusely and reach for tissues. Baby A would cackle and then, as I was trying to wipe bean paste from the fabric, Baby A would grab the loose skin on their face, just below their eye, and gouge tightly with his unkempt claws. It would be ugly - people would cry.

I thought if I were, however, to deflect all talk to Joyce - Baby A and I might be in with a chance. I could go in on the offensive. “So, have you read Incy Wincy the hard back wipe-clean tab version?…Sublime”. Baby A and I would then break into a round of Incy Wincy Spider. I would do the hand movements and Baby A would bounce up and down in his pram like the conductor of the New York philharmonic. The scholars would be confused and, later perhaps, moved by our touching rendition. No one would cry, unless they were tears of joy. Ok, Baby A might cry but it would have been unrelated to Incy and possibly related to the unexpected loss of the bean paste cake which I would have grabbed out of his sticky hand in the preceding moments.

The reality about Joyceans though is that they’re really, really into Joyce and not that much into Incy Wincy. Joyceans are intense and focussed and random. I say random because they’re not who you expect them to be i.e. they’re not all David Norris. We met a very nice Korean lady who was a Joycean scholar. I wanted to know how and why she decided that that was what she wanted to do with her life and career. Does she read it in Korean? Maybe Joyce is more appealing in Korean than it seems to be in English. I didn’t ask her, I was terrified of mentioning Joyce in case someone thought this was an invitation to start a Joycean-type conversation.

One of the Chinese professors on this unusual outing had recently translated Finnegan’s Wake into Chinese and apparently it shot to number 2 on some Shanghai bestsellers list. I secretly wonder if it was the Chinese Joycean Scholars bestsellers list. Not having read it, I’m in a weak position when it comes to criticism or sarcasm, I admit.

I decided to hang out with the students mostly and let them fawn over Baby A and feed him cake. It seemed like the better option. At one stage as we wandered about in the sweltering mid morning heat looking at an ancient Chinese building, I looked over to see two young, very intelligent, serious, Chinese literature students fanning my 12 month old son from either side of his pram as if he were Tutankhamun himself. I made a mental note that the child needs to be socialized in a normal environment before he comes to believe that he’s immortal.

Mr Oh, during this excursion, was taking a different and not altogether unsuccessful approach. Having actually read some Joyce (albeit not a whole lot) he was taking the little nuggets of knowledge available to him and wringing ever single nano drop of conversational kudos out of them, with gusto. As he wandered around the alleys of Zhujiajiao discussing the merits of The Dubliners (and not much else) he did seem vaguely convincing as a Joycean scholar.

As to why an international band of Joycean scholars, a handful of Chinese literature students, a diplomat, a hausfrau and a baby were meandering the streets of ‘Shanghai’s Venice’ together early one hot August morning, I’m still not sure, but it was a good way to spend a few hours.

I’m still recovering from the fact that this town, Zhujiajiao, is considered a suburb of Shanghai and yet we drove for over an hour on the motorway to get to it. That’s a story for another day. The mind-melting giantness of China is not an issue I’m ready to tackle before lunch but I would like you, my faithful reader i.e. Mom, to think about that for a minute. An hour - on the motorway - still in the suburbs - not even left the city. Bonkers.

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Babyoncé A

pappaodh


It’s 40 degrees in Shanghai at the moment. Melty. We cowered indoors until 5pm this afternoon…even then, it was still 40 degrees but there wasn’t much direct sunlight which made it more manageable.

We decided to make like locals and get the metro somewhere. Taxis are extremely cheap but we’re too hipster for personal transport. Actually, it’s more that they’re a pretty dangerous way to transport a toddler. No seat belts, no rules, no safe. As we won’t have a car here, I obviously can’t avoid using taxis altogether but I’m going to try to limit it to times of true desperation (rainy days and Mondays?).

Our journey today (3 stops, 1 transfer) cost the princely sum of 40p per adult. It was clean, fast and efficient. It was far nicer than either the New York subway or the London Underground (which are both quite creaky and dingy really). It wasn’t quite as nice as the Singapore MRT but nothing ever is. Despite being the most ‘western’ city in China - it’s still very much a Chinese city and the majority of transactions still take place in either Mandarin or, alternatively, hand signals.

Luckily, I came prepared. I had looked up the word for transit card online in advance and so was able to stroll nonchalantly up to the ticket booth and say in my best Crouching Tiger accent “
请给我两个交通 一卡通 two of your finest and most ubiquitous transit cards please (at least, that was the sentiment). The result was not, as I had expected, two lovely transit cards. The response was a blitzkrieg of rapid fire Chinese the only part of which I picked up was ‘no money’. This is where the hand signals really came into their own. Turns out you have to pay for the card, which doesn’t have any money on it, and then add money separately. Thankfully, I’ve been doing baby sign language for several months now and it all worked out in the end.

During our early evening meander around Shanghai, having successfully negotiated public transport like total pros, we stumbled upon a group of Chinese tourists from out of town. We knew they were Chinese tourists because all thirty or so of them were wearing matching light blue t-shirts and taking photographs of lamp-posts, paving stones and other Shanghainese specialities. As we reached about midway through their ranks, the inevitable happened, and all hell broke loose.

The first one to sound the alarm was a well-coiffed, middle aged lady who up until that point had been gazing aimlessly around. Once she spotted the golden locks of our little cherub she wailed loudly to her nearby companions ‘xiao pengyou!’ which translates as ‘little friend’ which I thought was terribly cute. With that, the hordes descended upon Baby A as if he were Beyoncé. He responded accordingly, smiling, posing and high-fiving - also as if he were Beyoncé.

Eventually, it all got a little intense. There were grown men, men with grandchildren, men who might have been powerful CEO factory overlords snapping away at a blonde toddler in a pram with their high-spec giant SLR cameras as if he were a superstar (see photo above). He’s always been our superstar…and now, it seems, his fan base is growing. We’re going to have to start managing his diva tendencies. He’s already demanding raisins on his Weetabix…whatever next?

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Mommy No Sleep

jet-lag


I spent weeks researching how to manage jet lag in babies. I asked people, I made schedules, I had a system. Turns out, babies cope with jet lag pretty well. There was one night of wanting to party at 3am and then, last night, he slept through like a clockwork orange. Sadly, the same can’t be said for adults.

At 2am, Mr Oh was reading the imaginatively titled A Short History of China which he reckoned would help him nod off but which, despite its lack of titular titilation, he was still reading at 4am. I was tossing and turning for hours until insanity seemed to take hold and I started mumbling in my best faux-Confucius impression “Body ti-yard, mind wi-yard”. On occasion, I would leap out of bed to look something up on the internet and return half an hour later for another futile attempt at falling asleep.

I tried to count slowly in my head but what started out as “One…two…three…” became “Twenty four - I wonder if I can buy sweet potato here - twenty five - stop thinking about sweet potato - twenty six - focus on the numbers - twenty seven - twenty eight - mmmm, sweet potato salad - twenty nine - no more sweet potato - thirty - thirty one - thirty two - I should google where to get sweet potato”.

I think it was almost 5am before I finally fell asleep. Baby A had, at this stage already been asleep for six hours. Four hours later he was up again, bright as a button and ready to play. I groggily picked him up and was wandering about our serviced apartment looking for the iPad with which to amuse him when the doorbell rang. This was surprising because a) it was 9am on a Saturday morning and b) we don’t know anyone in China. With Baby A slung across my hip, I opened the door and was confronted by three small middle aged Chinese ladies. On seeing Baby A they let out a chorus of ‘Waah, oooh’s and Baby A, feeling the love, gave them a wave along with a general shout of welcome and the three of them toddled right past me into the apart.

The three unknown women all split in different directions - one into the kitchen - one to the bathroom and the third started heading down the corridor to where Mr Oh lay in a sleep-deprived haze. I shouted that he should get up and a few moment later he emerged in a stumbly fashion from bedroom and collapsed back onto the sofa for several minutes before enquiring as to why there was a Chinese woman making his bed at 9am on a Saturday.

While Mr Oh was unsure about the whole thing, Baby A was totally invigorated by the sudden arrival of company. He scurried on hands and knees down to the bedroom and was quickly swept up in the arms of two of the ladies who poked and pinched him merrily as he giggled away. They chattered away to him in Chinese and he, in return, shouted and them loudly in a Maoist fashion. Eventually, Mr Oh and I, sensing that we were getting in the way plucked Baby A from his coterie of admirers and hauled him (still shouting away) out of the apartment in search of breakfast. By the time we returned, an hour later, the ladies were gone, the apartment was spotless and Baby A was ready for a nap. A successful Saturday morning in Shanghai.

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Food

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I stopped writing. I didn’t want to. I didn’t intend to. Like most Irish people, I blame the EU. 2013 brought the Irish Presidency of the EU and Mr Oh’s hours got longer and later. There was no-one to hold the baby as I tootled away on my keyboard.

This coincided with another unfortunate development - Baby A started to eat food. What began as a relatively simple procedure (pour baby rice into bowl, add milk, shovel into baby’s mouth) became increasingly time consuming as Baby A realized that he wanted to eat everything, all the time. I spent my few free moments peeling, steaming and pureéing vast quantities of fruit and vegetables as Baby A sat in his highchair shrieking at the top of his lungs and throwing handfuls of mashed avocado at the wall. He ate every single thing I put in front of him (apart from bananas), making loud gobbling noises as he went and occasionally trying to push the pulverized mush through his belly button, as if that might be a faster way to get it in. Kilos of carrots, piles of apples, absolute mountains of sweet potato - it was all suctioned merrily into his tummy.

Suddenly, I didn’t have just one meal a day to cook but four. One for Mr Oh, and three for his hungry boychild. Every taste, every new flavor and texture was a revelation to him. The first time he tried a croissant he was so overcome that he lay flat on his back for about twenty minutes afterwards lolling happily in a pool of flakey crumbs. After months of doing baby sign language in the hope that he would be able to communicate lofty thoughts at a young age, the very first word he signed back at me was ‘more’. Six months later, it’s still the only word in his repertoire.

He swiftly graduated from steamed mush onto more sophisticated tastes - chicken curry, spaghetti laden with garlic and herbs, olives, baked pasta dishes, oriental stir fry i.e. adult food. The upshot of this is that I no longer have to cook separate baby meals. He just eats what Mr Oh eats…and about the same amount too.

I’ve been trying actively to introduce new flavours in preparation for today. At 7 months I started adding coriander to his food, at 8 months onion and garlic, at 10 months chill pepper and then, just after his first birthday we moved him to China and fed him dumplings. So that, essentially, is what we did today - we moved to Shanghai and gave Baby A dumplings for dinner. He seems remarkably unfazed. I like to think the hint of coriander in his puréed sweet potato all those months ago is making the transition easier.

I’m not entirely heartless though. I let him have a croissant for lunch - just to ward off the culture shock.

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My Teenage Baby

th


When Baby A was born I looked forward to his toddler years, his childhood, cuddles and games, cartoons and adventures. But alas, Baby A has decided to skip all that and become a teenager at the tender age of four months. I know this because:

1. He wants to party all night and sleep all day.
Once I made the mistake of gloating, “My baby sleeps through the night at only three weeks”. I should have known that kind of bad karma was just going to come back and bite me on my smug new-mamma ass (which, incidentally, is bigger than it used to be). I really thought that I had the sleeping thing cracked…but Baby A had different plans. Where once he slept for a full 8/9 hours at night plus a few good long naps at either end, he has now taken to waking every three hours and demanding booze…I mean, milk. Then it takes me two hours to get him back to sleep because he wants to play, sing songs and lick my face. This is apparently called the Four Month Sleep Regression but I’m pretty sure I did something similar when I was 16.

2. He has an eating disorder.
Baby A has recently discovered his hands. He likes to jam them into his mouth and stick his fingers down this throat. Inevitably this results in his last meal exorcising itself from his stomach and splattering itself all over the nearest newly-showered human. This is deeply shocking to Baby A who thinks that someone has stolen the food right out of his stomach (he suspects the squeaky donkey). After he has finished expressing a suitable degree of outrage at this unwittingly self-inflicted indignity, he emerges from his cocoon of rage to flash me the ‘feed me’ eyes. And thus the cycle of binging and purging continues.

3. He doesn’t speak to me. Mr Oh when he comes home from work, at which point he lights up like a glow worm. All I get through the day are a series of demands (“Milk…now…I want miiiiiiilk…right now…why don’t I have milk…I hate you”), protests (“I will not sleep…I don’t care if you think I’m tired…I’m not…and I’m going to wail for the next 45 minutes to prove it”) and sulks (“If you won’t feed me I’m just going to close my eyes and silently moan until my daddy comes home”).

4. He thinks he’s a grown-up.
He has started trying to eat things that are unsuitable for a baby i.e. things other than milk. I’ve had to increase the levels of vigilance when holding him on my lap at the dinner table. I look away for one minute and the next thing I know he has a piece of salmon hanging out of his mouth and a smear of chill-miso sauce on his forehead. He looks at me innocently, as if perhaps I hadn’t noticed that his left hand is buried deep in a bowl of basmati.

5. He deliberately tries to thwart me at every turn.
“If I arch my back just so, grab my left foot with my right hand and throw my head over the back of the changing table…let’s see how you get me into the babygrow then.”

6. He likes things that are bad for him.
Knives want to be hugged, glass wants to be head butted and carpets want to be licked. I haven’t caught him drinking jagermeister in a field yet, but it’s only a matter of time.

7. He wants to run away.
If only he knew how to crawl.

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Baby A and the Jallopy

th


As Baby A lives in Belgium, it is important to us that he remain in contact with his roots. As such, we bring him back to Ireland with alarming frequency. We were there last weekend, we will be there next weekend and then again two weekends after that. During these visits he can get to know the place he was born - a country that, unlike his current residence, values children more than yappy dogs. In Ireland, he can accidentally eat black pudding, listen to people grumble about the weather and bemoan the state of the economy. He can take long walks, wear woolen jumpers and track his ancestors around the house (I’m not sure my mother will take kindly to being referred to as his ancestor but it might make her rethink her aversion to ‘Granny’). In Ireland, he commands the attention of large swathes of people who hang on his every gurgle and watch admiringly as he eats bath bubbles off his forearm. He loves the way of life, the cheering crowds and the big, brown dog that licks his face when no one is looking.

In truth, we go back to Dublin a bit too frequently but it’s so close (a 1hr 20 min flight) and there are people in Dublin who will hold Baby A indefinitely while we nap. Then, they make us tea and sandwiches and hold Baby A some more. Baby A loves it because he gets to shout at new people who don’t ignore him when he makes irrational demands (“Take me to the tree…now back to the house….to the tree again…oh look fish, we must see the fish…and back to the tree…in the pram now, in the pram…and lift me…good, now put me back down…give me a toy…back to the tree, don’t forget the toy…okay and nap….no, no more napping…let’s dance!”).

The Dublin-Brussels flight isn’t particularly baby friendly - possibly because babies don’t generally go to Brussels. It’s full of lackluster civil servants with dull eyes and cross faces (much like the way I was before I discovered maternity leave). The good passengers of Aer Lingus don’t know how lucky they have been - he has never once cried on a flight. Were he to start, they would all be wishing they were back in the EU working group on dust particles or wherever they were for the previous 8 hours that day. They are very, very lucky that Baby A doesn’t seem to mind planes. I’m pretty sure a few more months of sitting on the lap of his semi-hysterical mother as they bump through cloudy turbulence together should put an end to that. For the moment though, planes are ok.

Cars are a different story altogether. You hear stories about babies who fall asleep as soon as they get into the car. The only time Baby A sleeps in the car is when he has screamed himself into such a state that he is unable to cope with life and collapses into a protest coma from which he intermittently awakens to loudly register his objection to being stopped at a red light. It’s actually deeply unpleasant driving alone in a car with a baby who seems to be under the impression - so great is the force of his hysteria - that his limbs are in the process of being cut off by invisible elves.

Last week, I was pulling out of a car parking space and Baby A had reached Level 9 in the screaming stakes, i.e. crying so hard that he sounds like he’s choking. I thought ‘I’ll just keep driving because we’re only five minutes from home’. Two seconds later the screaming abruptly stopped and the car went totally quiet. I didn’t think he had calmed down because he usually gives a woe-is-me howl of resignation before falling silent. With the car half in the middle of the road and half in the parking space, I pulled on the hand brake and lept into the back seat with a speed and dexterity that would have impressed a Chinese gymnast. What I saw was most shocking. Baby A’s entire body was clenched in paralytic terror, his eyes were wide open, his face dark red, his little fists were bunched around his car seat straps as if trying to rip them off, his mouth was open but, quite alarmingly, there was no air going in or out. Baby A was not breathing. It was as if he had become so upset that he was no longer able to draw breath and he seemed quite taken aback by this sudden development. I pulled him out of the carseat and as soon as I picked him up he drew a great big breath and started sobbing into my shoulder. I think he’d gotten as much of a scare as I had. As babies do, he fell fast asleep about 20 seconds later. I popped him back in the car seat and drove home. It was four hours before he was ready to wake up and do the world thing again. I spent the rest of the afternoon being traumatized and wondering how I was ever going to drive anywhere again.

Each car journey since has become a careful balancing act to avoid the kind of hysteria that makes Baby A stop breathing. I have gone from a sane person to the lunatic belting out Nelly The Elephant with the windows down in November at traffic lights in the car beside the confused Belgian people. Or alternating brake and accelerator repeatedly in order to jolt the car slowly towards a red light rather than stop and risk a baby meltdown. Using a car as a giant rocking device is probably not the best idea I’ve ever had and it’s only a matter of time before I get arrested and Baby A is motherless. Poor Baby A.

We’re going to Mother and Baby yoga in an hour…we have to go in the car. I want to cry at the thought of it. We were at a dinner party last week and I mentioned that the baby didn’t like the car another guest (who was Austrian) said, in her Arnold Schwartzenegger accent, “Vell you cahn’t just stop driyhving because ze bébé doesn’t like ze kah”. That’s the kind of thing I used to think before I had a baby. “I’ll just drive right through that crying…I ain’t stopping this car for no pissed-off baby.” Hah! That’s like the time I said “I want a natural labour without pain relief because that is how the earth means for us to give birth”. I was stupid back then. We say these things before we have the baby because we don’t know how much that shit hurts. Labour hurts like hell - take the drugs. Next time (if there is one), I’m going straight for the giant needle in the spine, it hurts too but it hurts so much less. Listening to your baby scream himself blue in the back of the car where you can’t see him and he can’t see you…that hurts too. Sniff.

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Babydom

gro-egg-


I live in Babydom. It’s a land populated entirely by babies and the people who pander to them. It’s a muffled maze of invisible interconnected bubbles that exist within normal society. Citizens of Babydom wander among you looking like average folk but they’re not.

There’s a whole baby sub-culture out there that goes unnoticed until the day you need to shop for a baby and realize that at least 15 pieces of equipment are required just so a baby can go for a nap:

  • cot/moses basket/warm section of floor
  • mattress protector
  • sheet
  • muslins
  • babygrow
  • baby sleeping bag
  • gro-egg (cute little egg shaped plastic thing that changes color with the temperature of the room)
  • humidifier
  • musical mobile
  • star projector
  • night light
  • cuddely toy
  • pacifier
  • book (to look up explanations for why your baby won’t sleep)
  • mobile tablet device (to look up explanations for why your baby won’t sleep and/or buy books that will explain why your baby won’t sleep)
  • repertoire of random lullabies/hymns/jingles (for when your baby won’t sleep)

You need another entirely different set of equipment for feeding the baby, even more stuff for changing the baby and don’t even mention traveling with the baby. On our first trip back to Dublin when Baby A was seven weeks old, I was packing for both Baby A and myself and Mr Oh suggested that I should try to bring just a small carry-on bag and not check anything in. I genuinely thought he was joking and when it became clear that he was, in fact in earnest, concluded that he must be either insane, delusional or blind.

The amount of stuff required for babies is so significant that its production could fund the recovery of a mid-sized South American economy. In Babydom, the consumer megaliths Chicco, Lamaze, the Gro company, Dr Browns and Tommee Tippee are household names. Annabel Karmel is the celebrity chef every mother turns to for baby weaning recipes (I didn’t even know there were over a hundred ways to make puréed vegetables). I personally don’t know how I
lived without my Boppy pillow and Lansinoh cream before (although the fact that I wasn’t breastfeeding a 7 kilo barracuda might have had something to do with it). Our apartment is now full to the brim of stuff that Mr Oh and I had never even heard of ten months ago - nasal aspirators, Caldesene, gro-bags, steam sterilizers, Aptamil, baby gyms (we have two), bouncers, sock-ons and more muslins than can be produced by China in a week. For something so mid-sized, he needs a lot of stuff.

This small butter-mountain of obscure paraphernalia tends to provoke bemused looks in the older generations and the seemingly irresistible compulsion to say something along the lines of “We didn’t have/do X in my day and babies still survived”. On the one hand, they have a point but on the other hand I can clearly remember Milton sterilizing units, bouncy chairs and large piles of muslins when my brothers were little so I think the older generation have just chosen to block out the madness. In reality I’ve discovered, people forget things very quickly. When I met my nephew, Baby T, for the first time last month, I was ashamed to admit that I’d forgotten how to hold a newborn despite the fact that it had only been five weeks since Baby A’s newbornhood. There’s also the fact that Baby T seemed more fragile than Baby A, who - at almost 10 lbs -was born half-reared and punching.

As well of masses of hitherto unknown staple goods, Babydom has its own religious sects. One can choose to worship at the Church of Parent-Centred Parenting, the Synagogue of Attachment Parenting, the Temple of Letting-Them-Cry-It-Out, the Mosque of Winging It and the Commune for the Organically Obsessed. I’m an á la carte Attachment Parent which I reckon is a bit like being an iconophilic Evangelist.

One of the biggest hot-button topics in Babydom is the issue of co-sleeping. In my Pre-Baby-A days, I discovered that friends of mine still let their three year old daughter sleep in their bed. I remember observing (and not silently either) that this was a ridiculous situation and one that I would never tolerate once I had children. They just smiled silently - I now know why.

Baby A does not like his cot. Well, actually, I don’t think he minds it really but it is Baby A’s view that the big soft place where the sheets are pre-warmed, the cuddles are cheap and the milk is on tap is a far better deal. Baby A also has a rule where he will only fall asleep outdoors on the move or alternatively indoors on human. If it is indoors-on-human, he will not stand for being moved into his cot before midnight. All pre-midnight sleeping must take place nestled in the arms of…well, anyone really. He’s fussy but not a total despot. Once midnight has passed, he will allow himself to be placed (gently) in his cot - but he likes his parents to be near by. If he doesn’t sense at least one of them, he wakes up and protests. He’ll usually demand more milk as well, just for the hell of it.

He will stay in his cot until anywhere between 5 and 8am. Then it is time to move in beside the mama where he lies like a Winston Churchill shaped starfish in the middle of the bed. All previous habitants are either shunted unceremoniously off to work or forced to lie shivering and clinging precariously to the outer edges. He likes to wake the mama up by poking her in the eye with his nails.

He is not allowed to lie in between his parents for fear that one of them will roll over on him (we know which one that is likely to be). While Baby A is robust, he is still mini in comparison to Mr Oh. Mothers are known for their ability to sleep without really sleeping and always being aware of where the baby is and what mischief he is up to (or ‘to which he is up’).

There are some people who say that co-sleeping is dangerous and parents should never fall asleep with their babies in the bed. There are others who say that it is natural, healthy and, if done properly, entirely safe. I have no strong views on it either way. The one thing I’ve learned from living in Babydom - other than how to tie a stretch wrap sling - is that it tends to be a fairly judgmental and polarized society. I’ve seen other mothers frown (and visibly bite their tongues) when I tell them that Baby A doesn’t go to bed until midnight (even though he usually sleeps until 10/11am). It works for us. I’ve been frowned at for many things - not using cloth nappies, supplementing breastfeeding with formula, letting him sleep in the bed, not having a nap-time routine and not giving him Vitamin D drops regularly enough (although it’s only Mr Oh who frowns at me for that). There’s a lot of frowning in Babydom (it’s all quite passively judgemental). But every morning Baby A is happy and smiley and clean(ish) and healthy and perfect so I must be doing something right.






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The No Zen Zone

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Baby A has picked up a new and disturbing habit. He has started thrashing about in his sleep, scratching his face then waking himself up terrified because he thinks someone is attacking him. He isn’t old enough to understand the concept of self-harm. His little pudgy face is covered in cuts and he looks at me mournfully as if I have failed to protect him from this assault.

I’m not sure what’s causing the thrashing and scratching but it doesn’t help that his nails are like razorblades. The Book says that the safest way to cut a baby’s nails is to bite them. I’ve tried this and apart from the fact that you can’t get a really short cut by this method and that Baby A’s nails do not taste good (he doesn’t let me wash his hands), the biting of the baby-nails gives my teeth the heebie-jeebies. Both Mr Oh and I have tried to use baby nail clippers. We have both ended up accidentally cutting his little fingers which, in conjunction with the scratched face, would be enough for social services to take him off us. Luckily, we live in Belgium, beyond the reach of social services so that’s less of a concern. They probably have social services here but I like to think we’re living off the grid.

In order to bring some zen back into Baby A’s life, I took him to Mum & Baby Yoga this afternoon. To be honest there’s very little about the whole experience that promotes relaxation and calm. First there is the never-ending preparations for exiting the apartment. This involves hunting down nappies, muslins, clean clothes, soothers, emergency bottles (for places where breastfeeding is just unseemly - like the supermarket checkout), wallets, phones, keys and putting everything into a bag. This is before the baby is even out of his pjs.

The baby is the least of my problems though when it comes to yoga. The biggest problem is that I have to drive to get there and driving in Belgium is enough to make one consider life in Amish country. There’s a lot of beeping, lane swerving and yielding inexplicably to traffic coming from the right. It’s like a high-speed free-for-all with SUVs. All of this is compounded by the fact that the steering wheel is on the wrong side of the car and the traffic is on the right. My driving tactic so far is: accelerate, scream and hope for the best. Baby A doesn’t like it either and he usually screams as well so there are often two of us screaming. Terror loves company.

Today we made it to yoga in one piece. I even managed a parallel park that was so stupendous I nearly took a photo of it and posted it on Facebook. Upon arrival at yoga, what I really need is a drink. There is no gin at yoga - sadly. I take my place on the sofa beside the other mothers who are all feeding their babies until the class starts. This is a common mothering technique referred to as ‘tanking-up’. The more milk you can get in the baby, the longer you’ll be able to do yoga. I made it a whole 45 mins today. Baby A quite likes yoga. He lies on my mat and makes gurgling noises as I try not to step on him. He’s not so into the other babies. Today he got hungry in the middle of the Wheels of the Bus (it’s not normal yoga) and decided he’d had enough. He then screamed the entire way through Itsy Bitsy Spider, the meditation session and the final relaxation. He screamed as I put him in the sling. He screamed as I bid my farewells. He screamed as I walked down the steps. He screamed as I put on my shoes. The moment I set foot on the pavement, he stopped screaming, smiled and promptly fell asleep. He’s still asleep two hours later. Yoga really tires him out.

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The Diving Bell and the Firefly


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I am not still pregnant. If I had been you would have read about me in the Daily Mail by now. Left to my own devices though, there is every possibility I would still be pregnant, my body showed absolutely no desire to expel the inner-child. In the end, the good people of the Rotunda dragged him out kicking and screaming. I will spare you the details. I’ve mostly blocked them out anyway.

Someone recently referred to the reality of childbirth as the greatest secret ever kept. I suppose it’s a deeply ingrained protection mechanism to ensure the continuity of the species. What I found intensely puzzling in the first few weeks after labour is that women often have more than one baby. It seemed unthinkable, but as the weeks pass, the memories in my head seem less like a cross between The Exorcist and Full Metal Jacket and start to be overlaid by cheerful flute music and scenes from Bambi. I can see how it happens - how you might forget childbirth and consider the possibility that it might be fun to do it again. I feel like I’m being brainwashed by my genetic code.

It was deeply shocking to me that the end result of pregnancy was a baby. Even after 50 hours of contractions, I still wasn’t entirely convinced that there would be a baby at the end of it. Imagine my surprise when there was not only a baby but some sort of implication that I would take him home with me…unsupervised. There had been no course, no exam, no certificate. The entire thing seemed like gross negligence on the part of the Irish healthcare system. How did they know I would be a responsible mother and take good care of him? I didn’t even know that. I feel there should have been more rigorous screening.

I did let him roll off the sofa when he was six weeks old (I was trying to multi-task motherhood and potato peeling). He landed face down on a pile of blankets and was very annoyed with me for a few minutes but appeared otherwise unharmed. Other than that I’ve been very careful not to break him. He is somehow aware of my fears and likes to make choking noises when I’m out of the room to see how fast I can run. Then he grins when I arrive panicked at his side seconds later to find his airways free and his countenance content.

I have been monitoring his milestones intently to make sure that he is developing normally. At three weeks he cried a lot which was apparently a good sign. At six weeks he smiled. At eight weeks he could hit things held in front of him and at twelve weeks he was supposed to laugh for the first time. I had been waiting all week for the first laugh so that I could tick it off the list. I played games with him - I spoke in silly voices - I even made Freddie the Firefly dance Gangnam Style. Lots of smiles, some squeals, no laughs. Then one night last week he was sitting in his bouncer chair silently as Mr Oh and I pottered about the place. Suddenly from the quiet corner came a low ‘mwah-ha-ha-ha’. My baby laughed! Well, he cackled like a villain in an old movie but I’m not going to split hairs. I’ve crossed ‘laughing’ off my list and Eoghan is actively embracing the fact that his son is a vampire from the 1930s. As I type this, he has his gums clamped intently around Freddie’s neck and with his hands appears to be attempting to rip Freddie’s wings off. Life is hard as a developmental stuffed firefly forced to submit to the whims of a neurotic mother and a mildly despotic 3 month old baby. Poor Freddie.

Now that Baby A has cracked the laughing thing (albeit with menace), I feel I no longer need to give him every single second of my attention. He amuses himself quite well talking to stuffed toys he thinks are people and likes a bit of freedom to play and plot in peace (I’m starting to think the ‘fall’ from the sofa was a failed escape attempt made to look like an accident). Eoghan has been encouraging me to return to writing the blog. He has wisely failed to add ‘with all that time you have during the day when I’m at work’. The challenge is finding a stretch of time when Baby A does not need to be held, fed, amused or soothed. Eoghan has suggested that I compose the blog entry in my head during the day like the author of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and then he’ll hold the baby when he comes home from work so I can type it out. I suspect he thinks that without a release for my thoughts and musings, I may lose my marbles being home all day in Belgium with a baby. I cannot work out whether it is being home with the baby that is likely to push me over the edge or the fact that I live in Belgium. As I type this now, the baby is sitting on my lap chewing Freddie’s antennae things. My hands reach past him to the keyboard. It’s awkward but do-able. My first post-baby entry is coming to an end. Baby threw up on Freddie’s head.

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