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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little A and the Ray-Ray

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

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

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

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

The Final Frontier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lifestyle: Independent vs. dependent

Attitude towards punctuality

At a party

Ideal of beauty

Elderly in day to day life

The boss

Noise level inside a restaurant

Problem-solving approach

Size of the individual’s ego

Perception: How Germans and the Chinese see one another

How to stand in line

Complexity of self-expression

Traveling and recording memories

Connections and contacts

Three meals a day



Moods and weather



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?