Me and My Zixingche

I had an amazing bike. I bought it when I moved back to Ireland from Singapore and I had grand plans about cycling into work in St. Stephen's Green from our house in Stoneybatter. I got a semi-customised Trek bicycle with special hand grips (no idea of the technical name) for people with sensitive wrists. Eoghan had a Trek too so it was important to me that we had matching bicycles as a sign of our commitment as a couple. I later discovered that having children with someone renders relationship-affirming-matching-cycles superfluous.

Anyway, I loved my bike. It had a bell and a basket and lots of gears that I didn't know what to do with. I loved it so much that I took my chances along the quays in Dublin every morning, wedged in between double deckers and trying not to employ my general approach to scary situations (i.e. closing my eyes and waiting for the danger to pass). I cycled to work in the rain, when I was tired, when I was grumpy, when I didn't feel like cycling. I gave it up after the first trimester of pregnancy (first time mothers do things like that) and my beautiful bike was relegated to a dusty corner.

The bike didn't get dusted off until Little A was 9 months old and we bought a bike seat for it. The seat had to go on my bike because Mr Oh had a road bike which was not suited to bike seats (so he told me). The weight on the back freaked me out as I cycled carefully down the cycle tracks of Brussels - slow, flat and safe - wobbling and occasionally wailing in terror.

I got better with the extra weight on the back and when we went on our month long road-trip honeymoon to Cork, Inishbofin, Cornwall and Normandy, we took our baby and our bikes with us. Finally, the bike was back in action, with a passenger this time…one that used to pull down my pants from his seat behind me and laugh uproariously as I screeched at him. He also liked to wriggle his feet free and use my coccyx as a foot rest. All was rosy for my beautiful bike.

And then we moved to Shanghai where I took one look at the traffic and bid the bike farewell. We moved the child-seat to Mr Oh's road bike which, miraculously, we discovered had been capable of carrying children this whole time (imagine that!). For a while, this was a good solution. And then Snugglepunk came along and it became clear that, at some point, I was going to have to get back on the saddle...literally.

But you know, two years is time enough for a bit of traffic desensitisation to set in so, a few weeks ago, I decided that I would rather cycle Snugglepunk the 5km to baby-school rather than subject us both to being flung around the inside of the overcrowded buses for half an hour every morning.

So, I went down to get my bike. It had been so long, it was hard to identify. I had to look at photos of my bike from our honeymoon to make sure I had the right one. But the weird thing was, it had recently been serviced and there was a lock on it that was not mine. Once we had decided this was definitely my bike, we put our own lock on in and that marked the beginning of the great bicycle standoff of 2015. This lasted approximately three days before the building management tipped me off that the person responsible for unlawfully requisitioning my bicycle was another building resident. I sent my heavies round to deal with him. Ok, I sent Mr Oh round to discuss the matter politely and, within minutes, my bicycle had been liberated and the great bicycle standoff of 2015 came for a rather anti-climactic end.

So, no excuses left, I strapped a rather perplexed Snugglepunk onto the back and off we went. We almost fell off before I even got out of the garage because...well, I forgot how to ride my bike and Snugglepunk was screaming like a banshee.

We almost crashed into a motorbike before we got out of the laneway because, you know, it's China, and almost is the key word anyway. And we were off. Within the first ten minutes, three people stopped me to tell me that Snugglepunk was asleep and shout at me because it was dangerous. He wasn't actually asleep, he was just examining a leaf which had become stuck to his knee but I just kept cycling shouting "it's not dangerous" and throwing them my best contemptuous glare - turns out its hard to throw contempt safely from a moving bicycle.

It occurred to me later that the reason the Chinese freak out when they see a child asleep on the back of a bike is because, generally, in China, the child bike seats don’t have harnesses. They don’t tend to put children this young on the back of bikes (unless on the lap of their mother who is sitting side saddle across the pannier). So, naturally, they think Snugglepunk is in danger of falling out. I’ve had a few long chats with Chinese ladies on bicycles while we’ve been stopped at traffic lights and I’ve explained to them about European bike seat engineering. They remain unconvinced. Some have even tried to poke Snugglepunk awake on the journey back from nursery (he has never once stayed awake for the whole thing).

There's one straight big long road from our house to Snugglepunk's nursery. We didn't cycle on that though because bicycles are banned from this road, for good reason. Chinese buses were the whole reason we were cycling in the first place because they are death-traps and the bus drivers are, without exception, angry lunatics who will plough into anything that crosses their path and enjoy randomly braking for no particular reason.

So, we had to make our way to nursery through a series of back streets, mostly cycling the wrong way down one-way streets. This is ok in Shanghai though. It would be foolish not to. My strategy was to hitch myself behind a slow-moving granny and just do what she did. Sometimes, the granny would do weird stuff like veer into oncoming traffic but, in these cases, I just made a judgement call.

Cars came at us from every direction, motorbikes laden with boxes careened out of driveways, scooters broke lights when we were crossing roads, people stepped off the pavement into our path right in front of us and at one point we seemed to be playing chicken with a flatbed truck. I kept my eyes open, my wits about me and I moved at the pace of a gently scampering cockroach.

Chinese traffic might seem crazy and dangerous - ok, it is a little bit crazy and dangerous - but there's a beauty in it too...something very reflective of Chinese society generally. Everyone is pulling out in front of other people, breaking lights, ignoring pedestrian crossings...but they won't hurt you (one hopes). They know you're there, they see you, they expect you. And if you cut them off, or pull out in front of them, or make them slam on their brakes, they don't get angry...they just shrug and get on with it. There is a kind of live and let live vibe on the roads.

It makes me think of a story I read a few years ago about a town somewhere that was getting rid of traffic lights and signs to make the roads less dangerous…and I think there’s something in that. In Shanghai, no one relies on a light to guarantee their safety or a sign to give them a right of way. Everyone is looking around, all the time, judging the safety risk, making calls…they’re just probably not doing it aloud like I do. I think it makes things safer generally. All surprise is no surprise! (This is a new phrase I’ve just coined and I’m going to use it liberally once I figure out what it means).

So, for a while, things were great. And then one morning, my bike wasn’t in the apartment bike garage (the one with a 24-hour guard outside and enough CCTV cameras to make a Sharon Stone movie). It had been stolen!

In fact, Mr Oh’s bike had gone missing a few weeks before but he didn’t get very far with our building in making a fuss, being stopped in his tracks by their claim that the CCTV footage “only went back 24 hours”. (Also he had left the bike unlocked and unattended for several days in the garage, feeling safe in the knowledge that no one in China would have any compunction to steal a bike with a frame they’d need a ladder to get on to).

Well, one bike gone could be chalked up to carelessness, but this was two bikes in a month! So I looked around and started shouting at the first person I saw.

No one else’s bikes had been stolen. Only ours, both of ours. I demanded to see the CCTV footage. They refused. I went down to the lobby every hour and shouted at whoever I saw there. I was just angry…and shouting felt good. I didn’t think it would make my bike come back. I banged on the security room door and asked to look at their cameras (ok, I knocked politely but they still refused to tell me anything).

But something happened, it seemed my shouting was working. They asked me to write down the value of our bikes, both of them. And then a few days later I was presented with a letter of apology and, in a very Chinese way, an envelope stuffed with money. I asked if they had seen who stole my bike on the CCTV footage. They said they had. I asked if they knew who it was. They looked to the side, giggled nervously and said “a stranger”.

I looked at the pile of money in my hand. I knew they knew more than they were saying. Something wasn’t right - I knew they wanted me to stop shouting and asking questions. I was being bought off. I was surprisingly ok with that.

I toddled off and bought a new bike. It’s orange and while I really wish my bike hadn’t been stolen in the first place…the best way to get over an old bike is to find a new one.


Signs That You're An Expat In China

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


The "School Trip"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



What I Did Last Summer

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

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'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).

March of the Philistines

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.  


How To Survive A Moth Invasion

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 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.  


The Ayi and I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It works much better like this.


Tai-Tai Lifestyle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Student Life - China Style

I think China has blocked my blog. I hope it’s not because I dissed Eat, Pray, Love. Also, my VPN - the thing that lets me look up illicit blocked webpages - is down. Actually, the only thing I look at is Facebook but now I feel cut off from the world because I have no idea who got engaged, who is hungover or who took photos of their dinner. The religious quotations and political opinions I could do without - the dinner photos, however, are fascinating.

It’s just as well China has cut off my access to Facebook (and lots of news sites but I don’t notice that so much), I should be studying instead. I am, after all, a student again. As of this week, I am a student in Shanghai Jiaotong University where I am pursuing competency in Chinese - I may be there for some time. According to Wikipedia (which I never doubt) the university is renowned as one of the oldest and most prestigious and selective universities in China (sounds like they might have written that themselves…). Notable past attendees of SJU include Jiang Zemin (former President of China), Luc Montagnier (a Nobel Prize Laureate for the discovery of HIV) and Ding Junhui (China’s top snooker player).

This is my third time attending University and I’m discovering that, in many ways, it’s all pretty much the same experience. This being China though, in other ways, it really isn’t.

Similarities between my Irish and Chinese University experiences:

  • There are a lot of nineteen year olds floating around the place. One of my new classmates told me how he had just ‘graduated high school’ last year (although it vexes me that Americans insist on graduating from school and don’t just leave noiselessly the way the rest of us do).

  • I have already rekindled my doodling skills and, this afternoon, produced a convincing bunch of daisies in the margin of my listening comprehension book.

  • While there is not a ramp on which people hang about posturing, there is a back stairwell where the Asian boys gather to smoke beside windows that they refuse to open. It seems Asian boys are the only people left who still smoke. Even the French have given up.

  • There’s a lot of preening and make-up adjustment in front of the mirrors in the ladies’ bathrooms. The giggling masses are now comprised of Korean teenagers who look like dolls rather than Irish teenagers who look like hookers - it’s the same vibe though.

  • I was given a student handbook during my first week. It outlined the history of the university, the ethos and the rules. The rules are a bit more far-reaching than I would have expected e.g. “students should not stay up late” and also a little more specific, e.g “students should not disseminate erotic, counter revolutionary material”. Ok then.

That’s pretty much where the similarities end.

Differences between my Irish and Chinese University experiences:

  • I actually have to work. Twenty hours of classroom lessons a week plus another 20-30 hours of extra study just to keep up. Also, there are no G&T breaks when studying in the library on a Wednesday afternoon.

  • There’s very little alcohol in general. I’d like to think this is because I’m pregnant but, really, it’s because it’s China. I’m fairly sure ‘no drinking’ is in the handy rule book too.

  • The chairs are really uncomfortable and built for midgets..sorry, petite Chinese frames. It would actually be difficult to make a more uncomfortable chair without involving shards of broken glass. I’m starting to wonder if I’m actually at a re-education facility. After four hours with my legs crammed under the desk at a funny angle and my spine wedged against a rod of metal - I’m ready to stop disseminating all that erotic, counter revolutionary material.

  • It’s hard to get a seat in the study room because all the Koreans use it to nap,

  • It is I who am the mature student. I’m trying to revolutionize the species. I don’t ask too many questions. Sometimes I don’t do my homework (not really) and I try not to sit in the front row. I usually manage row 2, maybe row 3…the pull of the front increases with age.

  • I am unlikely to marry one of my classmates.

  • The toilets are the hole-in-the-ground type. It’s interesting. I had a unique experience there last week with a pregnancy bump on the front and a bag full of text books on the back. My squatting skills will be so much improved by the end of the semester that I imagine I will be able to compete for Ireland in Olympic women’s weightlifting. Do they have a maternity category?

  • It’s ugly. Now I know most places are ugly compared to Trinity but I’m comparing it to UCD here. It looks like toilet, even on the outside. It’s ugly and dirty…but at least there’s heat, sometimes.

According to Jiaotong’s website, the campus looks like this:

However, the bit I see every day looks like this:



You should all be thankful I didn’t take a photo of the toilets. Instead, here’s a China-centric world map. Who knew Ireland was so close to falling off the edge?

Christmas 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Culture Shock

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don't Panic

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Shanghai Smack-down

IMG_1607 - Version 2

You might be wondering if I’m going to spend the next three years writing about the 911 bus. I might. Although eventually I may no longer be phased by the friendly harassment visited upon me by the old people of China - or maybe I’ll just start dressing my child in a way that they find more acceptable i.e. more clothes, looser socks, none of this fancy sling business.

I wrote a few weeks ago about getting on a particularly peculiar version of my trusty 911 - this time with tables inside and no roof on top. It has become something of a regular on my route. I took a few covert photos last time I was on just in case no one believes me that the bus has tables. It’s hard to take sneaky photos when you’re the only baby-toting foreigner on the route. I probably should have just taken the photos openly but, to be honest, they think I’m weird enough as it is. If you look closely you can also see the shouting bus conductress behind the tv.



The table-bus has become my favorite way to travel but it wasn’t until yesterday that I found myself on it unencumbered by Baby A and therefore able to check out the roofless upper deck. It’s essentially a dilapidated tourist bus which, presumably, is why there’s no roof. It was a glorious autumnal Shanghai morning. The sun was beaming down and the world was looking very fresh and pretty. I bounded up the stairs of the bus and was surprised to find it totally deserted despite the fact that downstairs was wedged. I had the whole top deck to myself - just me, the breeze and the Shanghai sunshine - bliss! I couldn’t fathom why the Chinese wouldn’t come up here on such a lovely day but they can be peculiar about the elements. As a nation, they’re not very outdoorsy.

So I was happily relaxing on the top deck on my ownsers, peering down at the peeps, soaking up the rays and…wham!…smacked in the face by a branch. Thankfully, all my fellow bus riders were downstairs and my humiliation was therefore without witness. I recovered swiftly but spent the rest of the journey crouched down in the aisle keeping an eye on the various dangling electrical wires and foliage that suddenly seemed closer than would be acceptable to ensure general bodily safety. The lesson of the day was - if the Chinese don’t do something, think about why that might be. Do they not sit upstairs because they’re peculiar about the outdoors or is it more likely because they don’t fancy being beat-down by a tree?

It was an educational experience. I took it on the chin (literally) and dealt with it by doing what one does when one gets bitch slapped by China - turned on country music. Nothing is less China than country.


Yi Jia Jia Ju

I’ve moved house/country four times in the last 2.5 years so I’d like to think that I’m something of an expert on hauling oneself and a pile of one’s unnecessary belongings across the globe. At this stage, even my furniture is cross with me. There are many things you can do to prepare for a move, facilitate a smooth transition and reduce relocation stress. I’m a pro - I know all the tricks. There are only two things that are set in stone when it comes to moving house: 1. You will be shocked at the amount of useless stuff that you have accumulated in the previous location and 2. You will, upon arriving in new location, go straight to IKEA to buy more useless stuff. There’s no point in fighting it - some battles cannot be won - IKEA is inevitable.

I honestly do not know what happens if you move to a city where there is no IKEA. I shudder to think. It hasn’t happened to me since I moved to Wuxi in 2002 and anyone who knows me will know that I do not have good things to say about either Wuxi or 2002. Wuxi means ‘without tin’ which isn’t a very auspicious moniker if we’re honest. If you start naming towns based on what they’re lacking, it doesn’t bode well. I wonder if it’s too late to change Wuxi’s name from ‘without tin’ to ‘without IKEA’ (Wuyijiajiaju) - it’s a bit of a mouthful so I fear I might meet local resistance to the idea. Just as well I don’t plan going there ever again.

I digress. The point is - IKEA cannot be avoided. And why should it be? It’s bright, clean and has everything you didn’t even know you needed at affordable prices. Baby A didn’t know he needed a toddler sized baby rattan armchair, but he did. I don’t know how we ever lived without it - all toddlers should have one. In Singapore I made three visits to IKEA after the move. In Brussels, we made three trips out to the IKEA in Zaventem overall. We’ve been to IKEA twice already since we moved to Shanghai and I’ve had that feeling in my bones that the third trip was becoming more likely. Mr Oh thought my bones were lying to me and put it down to a touch of gout, but he was wrong. He fought it - by God, he fought it but in the end, as I’ve already said, IKEA is inevitable.

The problem isn’t really IKEA although anyone who’s been silly enough to try to go there on a Saturday afternoon (i.e. me) knows that sometimes maybe the problem is IKEA. The problem, this time, is China and IKEA - they don’t really get each other. For the Chinese, shopping is something you do online (Taobao) or at your local hole-in-the-wall random dude. IKEA is therefore not so much a place for buying things as a venue for hanging out with your extended family drinking tea and taking selfies in the show kitchens. And napping…it’s impossible to see a sofa or bed in IKEA because they’re usually all occupied by three generations of Shanghainese taking a communal catnap. I see the logic - why would IKEA put beds there if they didn’t want people to sleep on them? The result though is akin to walking through one of those Halloween house of horrors with the lights on. Everywhere there are bodies, progress is slow and at a few points along the defined trail, you’re actually a bit scared.

It doesn’t help knowing that, if you put your toddler down for a moment, he gets picked up by a curious Chinese person who thinks he might be part of the showroom. “See the Europeans live in their natural environment” - I’m sure it says that somewhere. You can see why Mr Oh wasn’t keen to repeat a Chinese IKEA experience. I had to be firm and told him, in no uncertain terms, that a visit was absolutely necessary. He asked me to define what it was that we needed so desperately. “Oh, you know…” I said, “sticky things, boxy things and those brightly colored roundy things”. He couldn’t argue with that.

We went last Sunday evening. We were clever about it. We skipped the showrooms. Chinese people don’t actually buy anything in IKEA so the tills are fairly empty. They only use the downstairs area because it’s the shortest route between the Swedish dream rooms and the 10c ice cream cones (also very popular). We were in and out within a reasonable time frame. There was a tense moment in the boxy thing area where the human equivalent of a 10 car pile up seemed to be taking place but we discovered that IKEA has these random little escape doors between different areas so you don’t actually have to follow the circuitous arrows (although I’m very law abiding so this option hadn’t occurred to me before). Well, I never! It was like straight out of an Enid Blyton - in kitchenware one moment and then - through the magic door - and pop out right at lighting! Incroyable!

We emerged triumphant, laden down with inevitable, unavoidable, irresistible things and without too many injuries. Feeling quite pleased with self, I let Baby A down just beside the food section to stretch his legs a bit while Mr Oh loaded up the bags. I turned my head for a moment to check out the Swedish biccie section and when I whipped my head back around, literally about two seconds later, Baby A was standing in the middle of the mayhem, not two feet from me, with an untouched IKEA ice cream cone in his hand and look of shock on his face. I don’t know where it came from. I don’t know who gave it to him or why but from this day forth, I fear my son’s happiest memory of China will be set in the aisle at the far side of the cashiers in IKEA Shanghai. If the look on his face was anything to go by, that memory will be hard to beat.


111 Boxes


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.

My Shanghai Morning


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.

How To Spend Your Cash

You know, one of these days I might wake up in the middle of the night with an inexplicable yet pressing need to buy an overpriced handbag right that minute. These things can happen. They don’t usually happen to me but let’s not rule it out. If this were to happen, if I were to jolt upright in bed at 3am and start shrieking ‘Guuu-cci!’ at the top of my lungs (so desperate and acute would be my yearning), it is reassuring to know that I would be ok. Help would be nearby in the form of my local Gucci cornershop which is open round the clock - 24 hours a day, 7 days a week - to cater to all my emergency designer needs. The Chinese Super Rich (they’re a thing - like D4 x 100 to the power of Kanye) really do have more money than sense.

I can’t imagine why one would need a 24 hour Gucci on-hand but clearly there’s a market for it or it wouldn’t exist. Too much alcohol, too many raised emotions, not enough sobering daylight - a €3,000 handbag might seem like a cracking idea one pre-dawn Sunday morning. Needless to say, the presence of such a neighborhood facility was not a deciding factor for us when choosing an apartment. There’s a dumpling bar beside Gucci and I really hope that it’s 24 hour too because I think I’m much more likely to wake up craving pork than bling.

There’s a lot of cash floating around Shanghai and the Chinese are coming up with increasingly more inventive ways to spend it. Shark fin soup is one example. Shark fin doesn’t really taste of anything. It’s kind of ribby, like the inside of a satsuma but fairly tasteless. The Chinese like it because it’s expensive. To kill (or as good as kill) an entire shark just for one tiny, rubbery fin…it is the epitome of decadence. They’ve been doing it for years and the price of shark fin is going up as the number of sharks go down which makes it even more desirable. It’s like the Gucci handbag of soups - tasteless and overpriced.

Sharkfin soup has a long history in China going back to the Ming Dynasty. It’s not very popular with the animal rights peoples because the process involves hunting down a shark, cutting off its fin while its still alive and dumping the rest of the shark back in the water where it’s rendered fairly immobile and dies shortly thereafter. The Chinese say western objections to shark fin soup are Sinophobic and disrespectful to their culture and tradition. I’m not an animal rights person so I have no great thoughts on the cruel vs tradition argument but it just strikes me as bad home economics. It’s so wasteful. Does shark meat taste nice? Could we not keep it and serve seared shark steaks along with salsa verde and a nice pinot grigio?

Shark fin soup is nothing new but the rise of the Chinese elite means that it’s more in demand than ever. Despite the price, there’s only so much shark fin you can eat and really, I would think, only so many designer handbags you can own (maybe not? handbags aren’t really my thing). The Chinese also like to spend lots of money on weddings (don’t we all? *sigh*). The hot new thing is to fly to Europe for your pre-wedding photos. You obviously bring your photographer with you from China - no European photographer could grasp the extent of the fantasy-kitsch-melodrama required to execute a truly desirable set of wedding snaps. Bizarrely, Nazi themed wedding photos are en vogue right now - example of good photo in this genre includes bride (in giant flowy white dress) oozing blood from a chest wound as she ‘dies’ in the arms of her improbably Asian Nazi lover who is decked out in full Nazi military regalia against the backdrop of some stately castle in the Swiss alps. Sometimes I feel that the Chinese are an odd sort of people.

Another way to spend your mysteriously obtained cash is the age-old art of pimping your ride. From observing the type of things that try to run me over several times a day, metal vehicles seem to be hot right now. “Is this not just, like, cars without paint?” I hear you ask. No, not quite. More like cars dipped in gold…or silver. They’ve got a very smooth, impossibly shiny almost liquid look to them - like melted aluminum foil. It is possible that they might also protect those inside from alien death rays as well as looking cool and blinding pedestrians on sunny days. If metal SUVs aren’t your thing, you can also get your paintwork personalized. I saw a Mini the other day with the words ‘Fen Fen loves Ricky’ inscribed within a big pink love heart on the back passenger door. I sure hope ‘Ricky’ doesn’t spook easily.

Although an increasing number of Chinese seem to have an alarming amount of money, most Chinese are still not wealthy. They tend to be the ones we meet most. I’ll tell you about them next time. I’m aware that in the last few entries, I’ve mostly written about the weird, the bad and the ugly in China. There’s lots of good too.


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
  • 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.
  • 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
  • It’s fast, it’s clean and it’s easy to navigate without Chinese.
  • 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
  • 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.
  • 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
  • It’s free. It’s exercise. Baby A likes it. It’s a good way to discover things.
  • 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.


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.


The Creepiest Place in China

P9255470 - Version 2
“The fading summer sunlight creeps across the desolate, concrete landscape. Empty, cracked buildings lie abandoned - forgotten relics of the communist heyday. The dusty wind scrapes past rusting bars and empty cages. In the distance, the broken-down sounds of an off-key fairground ride send a menacing chill through the air. The two women shudder as they push their small children down the unmarked paths, desperately searching for the exit. From behind a squalid cage, a deranged monkey hisses at the small group. The children recoil in fear as their mothers frantically push them around the next corner…another dead end. A low growl emanates from behind a low stone wall - someone, or something, is watching them.”

Should anyone want to make a movie of our recent trip to the Shanghai Zoo, that would be the opening scene. Stephen King could do the script. I’d like to be played by Emma Watson - she should get working on her North County Dublin accent. The movie, which will be a bit like The Shining meets Madagascar, will have to have to be altered slightly from real events. I don’t suppose anyone will go to see a horror movie where all the main characters, at the end of the film, get on the metro and go home to nap having exhausted their supply of raisins.

J-Mo and Babybel (*not their real names, thankfully) were our companions for this bizarre outing to the land that everyone forgot. We had read that the Shanghai Zoo was the best in China, and as far as Chinese zoos go, the least disturbing to foreigners. I had underestimated how low the bar was in that respect.

First of all, there appeared to be very few people in the zoo - this should have been the first clue. There were some children but the visitors seemed mostly to be hipster teenagers looking to ride the bumper cars on water. There also weren’t very many animals. We did a lot of walking and found a lot of buildings but most of them seemed empty. It was probably a good thing because the animals we did find were pretty miserable looking. The flamingos seemed happy enough - I mean, I can’t imagine flamingos need a lot out of life in order to be relatively satisfied - some water, some land, some company. There was a cross looking tiger in a small room pacing back and forth (which J-Mo said was a bad sign). As I held Baby A up to the glass, I noticed that the putty between the large panes of glass was deteriorating to the point were there were some small holes. I don’t like there to be small holes between me and tigers.

It kind of went downhill from there. It was eerily desolate, the cages didn’t look secure, the animals looked craven and insane. I’d be insane too if I had to put up with Chinese people torturing me on a daily basis too. The behavior of the other zoo visitors was shocking. We saw someone throw a big stone at a tiger in an open enclosure in order to get him to move. We saw people heckling and whistling at the animals, rattling the cage doors and banging on the glass. We also saw a group of boys giving bottle of soda to a little monkey in a cage and laughing while he drank it.

I hope Baby A and Babybel are young enough to forget what they saw. In reality, they were actually more interested in stealing each other’s raisins than the animals.

In the movie, the zombie monkey will escape and kill everyone in sight (except us - we can’t die because we have to get the metro home).



Neighbourhood Nudity

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).


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.


A Good Air Day

Pasted Graphic

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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




There’s a new man in my life - Harry. I first came across Harry when we walked in through the door of our temporary apartment in Shanghai. Harry was lounging on the sofa slurping on one of those iced milky coffee things. It was not immediately clear who he was. He bounced off the sofa in his surfing shorts, flip-flops and t-shirt and bellowed ‘Hey guys!’ followed swiftly by ‘Hello cute baby!’ (presumably at Baby A). We still weren’t sure who he was but he hung around for the best part of an hour before leaving with a reassuring ‘You got any problem, you call me, okay?’. Okay.

Two days later I had a problem - I couldn’t work out how to dry the clothes in the washing machine. I called Harry. Harry came over later, I found him in the living room. I don’t think he knocked first. He just arrived in our living room and was poking around the place when I happened upon him all bouncy and Asian-surfer-dude. I brought him in to look at the washing machine. He fiddled around with it and squealed ‘Wha you do wrong, I dunno, I tole you how to do it. You need to do it like I say.’ I said I did it exactly how he say but it still no dry clothes. ‘Ay yah, I dunno. I cannot work this type of thing. I no do laundry. I know wha you need - you need muzzah *guffaws*. Muzzah do laundry!’. He disappeared then and came back half an hour later with a big metal railing which he told me I could hang my clothes on….”like Chinese muzzah”. Then off he wandered, not before pinching Baby A’s face and shouting ‘So cute baby!!’ far too loudly in his ear.

He is tall for a Chinese man and has a look about him as if he might ‘work out’. If they ever did The Real World, Shanghai - Harry would be in it. He doesn’t look like a Harry - he should be called Brad or Chad or Logan - something suitably flippy. Harry is flippy. He’s also very camp but I can’t decide if this is a reflection of his sexuality or just the number of hours he has spent watching Katy Perry videos.

A few days ago our internet was down, for the third time that week. Reluctantly I called Harry. He appeared in the apartment again some time later. I knew he was there because I heard a long, high-pitched ‘Helllloooo cute babeeeee’ emanating from the living room. Baby A was in the process of scurrying under the coffee table to get away from him.

I explained the problem we had with the internet. Harry flung his hand up to his forehead and threw his head back in anguish. ‘Why? Why? Why’ he wailed, somewhat unexpectedly and, I thought, unnecessarily. “I don’t know why this internet box no work. Every time I come look at it and it just no work some time later. I no understand why some things not good things. Machine is like people. Sometimes they just die. You think they ok and then they die. No one understand.” I nodded. “This box”, he continues, “it like broken person. It want to die. I no understand why”. We stood in silence for a few moments (it seemed like the right thing to do).

Suddenly Harry perked up. “You do like Harry way, okay? Take power out and then power in. Harry way make ok. Box might die, but you can make work again. Okay ba-bye”. And off he went.

We’re still not entirely sure who Harry is or what Harry does. We hope he’s not coming to our new apartment with us though. To be fair to him ‘power out, power in’ i.e. turn off/turn on, always seems to fix the internet.


The Shanghainers


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.


Tai-Tai Rage


We have seen quite a few other ‘foreigners’ on our ramblings around our new home city. I wouldn’t say that the place is saturated with westerners but you see quite a few in Italian restaurants and in the more shiny parts of town. They’re certainly not a rarity…but I haven’t really seen any foreign children. Perhaps it’s because families tend to live in Pudong, the more suburban, recently developed area of Shanghai as that’s where all the international schools are located. Maybe it’s because it’s sweltering outside and most sensible Europeans, Americans and Kiwistralians have sent their children back to more temperate climes for the sweaty season. Maybe it’s because I’m not looking in the right places, or looking at all.

We did come across another non-Chinese couple of complex provenance who had a daughter about the same age as Baby A as we were getting pizza last night. They had been in Shanghai for about a year or so and when I told them that we had only been living here for four days, the mother - let’s call her Melinda (because I can’t remember her real name and she looked like a Melinda) pursed her lips together and winced, “Good luck sweetie, that’s all I can say”, she trilled. I politely moved away. She floated past our table on several other occasions throughout the evening and we attempted a few other strains of conversations, all of which left me cold. She told me about a good playgroup she attends, adding “and it’s fairly Chinese free” as though she were outlining the facilities. I was tempted to point out that she was in the wrong country if avoiding the Chinese was a life goal of hers but I suspect she already knew that. I mentioned that I was thinking about looking for a kindergarten for Baby A and asked her if she knew of one. She told me at length how she believes it’s more important for a mother to stay at home with her children for the first three years of their lives and how she would never leave her child for others to look after. As if to neutralize the possibly offensive nature of everything she had just said, she added ‘but that’s just my opinion’.

I smiled and nodded. I have met people like her before - in China and in Singapore. They don’t learn the language, they don’t explore the culture or enjoy it, they look down on locals. They live in a total expat bubble, frantically blinkering themselves from the reality that they live in China. I suppose I’m not really one to judge them. I am fond of many elements of expat bubblehood and maybe they didn’t choose to be here. It annoys me though - that kind of negativity. It’s an -ism, like racism, but acceptable somehow, maybe because most westerners in China are a little bit guilty of it. It’s believing that we are better, separate, more refined, smarter because we’re western. It’s cultural imperialism. It’s ugly. But to an extent it’s also unavoidable.

It’s almost impossible to integrate into Chinese China - not without the language which is extremely difficult to master. And maybe even with the language, maybe even then it’s still impossible. And because we’ll never really assimilate because we, foreigners, by virtue of our foreignness are not Chinese - obviously.

I read an article today by an American man whose wife worked in the Wall Street Journal and he travelled with her to Beijing and was essentially the stay-at-home dad. A Chinese wife who doesn’t work is often referred to as a
Tai-Tai - this man, in his own words, was a Guy-Tai. The advice he gave to newly arrived expats in China was “surround yourself with positive people, and focus on what’s there, rather than what isn’t”.

I don’t think hanging out with Melinda is going to up my positive chi factor but I gave her my email address anyway. I can’t really afford to be batting away potential friends on the basis that I don’t like them. If we do become best buds, I’ll have to remember to delete this post - someone remind me.


Babyoncé A


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?


Mommy No Sleep


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.




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.