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Archive for September, 2009

Stuff, and lots of it

lanternsToday is National Day here in China, and then it’s Mid Autmn Festival all week, everyone’s on holiday, all kinds of crazy stuff going on around town, blah blah blah, I will try to report on more of that stuff in the next couple days (if I feel like leaving the house, which I don’t today because it is pissing down rain relentlessly, and so instead I am going to sit on the sofa drinking Earl Grey and doing sweet f-all.) I was trying to get a sense of what would be open, what would be closed etc since I’ve not been here over a holiday before and didn’t know if I needed to, like, stock the fridge or what, but what everyone tells me is this: most shops will be open, because if there is one activity the Shanghainese¬† engage in religiously – in fact, if there is one religion they share – it is shopping.

It seems ironic that the CCCP was actually founded here in Shanghai; I can’t quite believe that these people were ever communists. I suppose technically they still are of course, but if ‘property is theft’ then this place is populated by naught but thieves. (Well actually that is probably true, in its way.) You really can’t imagine how much crap there is to buy here. This city might as well be one big mall.

Some of you have asked me if I am able to get Western foods and things here without too much difficulty. The answer to that is a resounding ‘Yes.’ Most of the supermarkets have an extensive imported foods section, and there is a little(ish) shop here in the clubhouse of our complex that is surprisingly well stocked with American, European, and Australian products. I say surprisingly, perhaps this is not so; our complex is pretty expat-heavy so I guess it is not really remarkable. The thing is of course, all of these things are¬† more expensive here – for example, I can get a Hershey bar or a pack of Reese’s Pieces for 8 RMB. This is about $1.17, and I can’t imagine paying more than a dollar for a Hershey bar. But, this would be about 73p in the UK, and actually I think in London I was paying about 70p a pack for Reese’s Pieces at the corner shop, so it is not like I am paying SOO much more really.

Wine is pretty heavily taxed though so I do end up paying more for that, generally. I mean I suppose if I didn’t want to pay I could just stop drinking wine (HA HA HA HA HA HA) or I could start drinking Chinese wine (…probably the less said about this the better…). However it is possible to find some decent deals – you UK folks might be surprised to know that Marks & Spencer is widely regarded as the best place in town for good price and good selection. I am not sure what sort of sweet deal they have worked out with Customs, but I can find bottles there at only very slightly more than I was paying for the same ones in the store on Holloway Road so hurrah for good old M&S. They’ve got a decent little selection of their food products there as well, and it is quite funny to go there; they only have the one shop in Shanghai so it is a minor expat mecca, and when you go upstairs to the 4th floor (where the food & wine is) it is generally populated by Westerners with delightedly dazed expressions fondling packages of frozen vegetable kievs and cranberry walnut cookies.

M&S is also one of the few places for giant Western sized people (like, you know, me) to find clothing that fits. Them and Next. It’s pretty hilarious that I’ve traveled to the opposite side of the globe to get excited about shopping in two stores that 6 months ago I’d have thought “meh” about. Well to be honest they are still pretty “meh” but at least they are there for basics. What do I ever wear besides jeans and black T-shirts anyway really! There are lots of other Western shops and brands here – H&M, Levis, Mango, C&A, Esprit, Miss Sixty, on and on – but they all seem to not stock anything larger than a UK 12. Useless to me!

But, yeah. No shortage of things to buy and places to buy them. There are so many malls and shopping centres it’s unbelievable. Then there are the markets, which are actually more fun places to shop really, but as a foreigner unless you can speak halfway decent putonghua or at least have a good command of the numbers, you are going to overpay. Bargaining is the done thing here but if you can’t communicate so well, you can never bargain down to the best price. Usually the way bargaining is done with a non-speaker (hello, me) is that every vendor has a calculator (or mobile phone) and so they will punch in a price. Your job as the buyer is to then look simultaneously horrified and amused, and to put in the number you want to pay. Your vendor then looks aggrieved and pleads with you not to steal food from her child’s mouth with this low number, and offers another price. And so back and forth until you reach a ‘mutually agreeable’ number. However the thing is if you are a foreigner the vendor’s starting number will be much higher than it would be for a Chinese person and so even after bargaining you as a foreigner will end up paying a higher middle number, unless you are very good at sticking to your low number and prepared to walk away from the deal, even after you have invested a good half hour in negotiations. Quite often foreigners end up just paying a higher price just because you just don’t feel like going through the whole bargaining process (it can be a real pain in the arse, when you just want to buy a goddamn shirt or whatever and get the hell out of there, for cryin’ out loud) and the vendors know this. They will get every penny from you they can and what in the West we might see as lying, cheating or misrepresentation, they see as simply part of the game here. Likewise, they expect that you know they are full of crap, but everyone has to pretend that we are all very sincere and honest in our negotiations, because again, that is the game. They will happily take as much of your money as possible, but they will enjoy it more if you play along and make it difficult for them. It can be fun, but as I say, it can also be annoyingly time consuming, especially when you know in the back of your mind that you are still getting ripped off because you’re a round-eye.

We Built this City

city It’s a bit of a strange start to the week. There’s a big holiday on over here. First of all it’s the Autumn Holiday Festival or some such thing, I don’t really know much about it yet except that I have to go buy something called mooncakes to give to other people. (I know I know, I ought to be better informed about this, I just haven’t got around to it yet and whatever, y’all have Wikipedia, look it up.) Secondly this year the Autumn Festival coincides with National Day, which is a bit like the 4th of July in the US, and a bit like… erm… well not like any day in the UK, as you lot are not very good at being proud of your country unless there’s a football involved, and even then not so much. I’m assuming you may have seen something about it on the news; this is the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, so there will be the People’s parades and the People’s fireworks and the People’s streets are all bedecked with the People’s flags and so on and so forth. Anyway, the upshot of this is that for most people this means a bit of an extended holiday, as offices are officially closed on Thursday and Friday this week. Except, so as not to lose too much of the People’s valuable work time, most offices were open yesterday – Sunday – so this week the work week is Sunday to Wednesday. But then everyone is off until next Friday, the 9th, when they go back to work. And then they go to work on Saturday the 10th. But then they have Sunday off. And then go back to work again on Monday. Or some kind of crazy crap like that.

Anyway, the reason I mention all this is that M goes to a local Chinese school (as opposed to an international school), so she had school on Sunday. Technically G’s office was open and he could have gone to work, but he’s got a fair amount of time-in-lieu built up, plus also he tends to feel like “fuck that noise I don’t work on weekends”. This meant that we were able to send M off to school in the morning and then we had the whole day! to ourselves! without a child! just the two of us!

So we did what any couple who never has any grown-up time to spend alone together who suddenly find themselves with a few free hours to fill does. We went to the Museum of Urban Planning.

HOT, right?

Well, I did marry an architect.

Anyway, the thing is, it is actually pretty interesting and more fun than it sounds. (Could it be less fun than it sounds?) On the ground floor it’s got this kind of goofy, over the top revolving sculpture thingy called Shanghai Sunrise, or something equally blaaargh-inducing, but then there was also a nice collection of photos taken by a variety of local photographers which was cool. Many of them had photos they had taken a number of years ago, and then went back to the same spot more recently and snapped the same view, and that was often quite striking. For example one fellow had a picture taken of his wife 30 years ago standing outside some boat builder’s shacks; where she was standing is now somewhere in the footprint of the World Financial Center building (known locally as The Bottle Opener), currently the tallest building in Shanghai.

The second floor (or the first, if you’re English) is more or less dedicated to “Old Shanghai”, the Shanghai of yore and lore, all that pre-Cultural Revolution stuff of the various concessions and such. Lots of old maps of the city, photos of Europeans being attended to, concession-era streetscapes, that kind of thing. More ‘then and now’ photo displays, kind of cool but IMO not as good as they could have been, but alright.

The next floor up has a sizable model of the Expo 2010 site:expomodelI don’t really want to say too much about Expo right now because I’m sure I’ll write about it more in the future so for now just look at the pretty picture.

The fourth floor is the really great bit though. It’s a model of the entire city of Shanghai as it is expected to look by 2012(I think), with tiny little exact (more or less) replicas of all the buildings, even the ones that are not yet built. It’s MASSIVE, too big to fit in one photo but this will give you some idea:city2See if you can find The Bottle Openener. Ok well it’s not much of a challenge is it? But you remember I said before that it’s the tallest building in Shanghai – but clearly there’s another building right next to it that is taller. That’s not built yet. But they’re working on it. When it’s finished, if we are still living here and in the same place, we will be pretty much next to it; about 2 blocks away. Here’s a view from above (taken from the mezzanine) to help show where we live:city3Ok so, look in the bottom right corner of the picture, and then to the left a tiny bit, there’s that little cluster of lowish building with the orange roofs? And there’s one that’s sort of like on the bend of the corner? That’s us. I’m in there right now, waving at you. Hello!

Oo oo that smell

smells OK I’ve not got much time to write tonight as it is late, and also I have had a few drinks, but I thought I might try to get in a few words about an important facet of the Shanghai experience – the way it smells. And really, it smells.

One of the first things I registered was that this town stinks of drains. I remember wondering to myself, “Is this something I will get used to, and in a few months will not even notice anymore?” Answer: No. i will never not notice this. Admittedly, it is not so bad as it was. I am told this is because of the change in weather; that that particular smell is always worst in the spring. However, that is only one smell. There are sooo many others.

We live barely half a block in from the Huangpu River. If you ever thought the Hudson or the Thames to be polluted, as we did, believe me you cannot imagine what pools of paradise they seem by comparison. G says to him, it smells like when he would first go down to the basement of the house to fire up the boiler at the start of the heating season. To me it smells like sweaty hands after coming off the jungle gym. Either way, it is a dirty metallic sort of smell. It is not overwhelmingly foul, but it is fair to say, it is not a pleasing scent.

Public urination is a fact of life here. This is not to say a fellow can just whip it out anywhere and let rip, but in general, one can expect that any semi-discreet corner or stretch of wall will stink of piss. C’est la vie, apparently.

And ca I just say, I could happily live my life without ever encountering another durian fruit. Jesus those things are freakin’ awful. And they are everywhere. EVERYWHERE. All of the markets, the fruit stands, the supermarkets, the smoothie shops. EVERYWHERE. I know some people really love them. Not me. ach. Ach! the stink of them. I can’t take it.

Now it must be said, in the interest of fairness, that there are nice smells as well, but they are much more rarely encountered. They usually center around food. Tonight we had dinner with some friends at a Sichuan restaurant and the first dish that came (a poached fish in chili sauce) smelled so goddamn amazing I nearly cried. But food is a whole other topic to explore, and it is late and I am tired, so it will have to wait. Another time…

A small helping of gratitude

prayers Warning: the first part of this post contains lots of me bitching and moaning. Oh no actually not just the first part; it’s pretty much all of it really.

I mentioned in my first entry that I had intended to start writing this months ago, shortly after arriving in Shanghai so that I could record everything as it was occurring whilst it was all still “new”. Well, that didn’t work out so well. Here’s what happened:

As many of you know, Gus came to China in early February to start work. The project he came to work on is not in fact in Shanghai but in another city called Tianjin, which is about an hour and a half away north-ish by plane. M and I stayed behind, so I could pack up the house, get things sorted, etc. So I had close to three months of ‘single parenting’ by the time M and I arrived in Shanghai on April 29th. As she was in nursery much of that time, and of course I had a good support network of friends, it was bearable. Now originally, the idea was that Gus would only be living up in Tianjin for a few months, and that by the time M and I got here he’d be based back down here.

Unfortunately though, it didn’t work out like that.

He was stuck up there until mid-August. Now, he came home for a weekend here and there, and M and I went up to visit him at one point, and so it’s not like we didn’t see him. But this meant that we couldn’t really settle in to life here together as a family, and that I was still doing the de-facto single parent thing. Except now I was doing it in a country where I know no one, don’t speak the language, and have no idea where to go to buy extravagant luxuries like, oh, milk.

For so long, it just felt like every freakin’ day was just utterly exhausting. First of all, those of you who have spent time with a three year old will I’m sure know that THEY HAVE A LOT OF ENERGY. I had hoped to get M into preschool straight away. There is one here on the grounds of our complex, which is one of the reasons Gus chose this place to live. However they could not take her until the end of the summer. So who gets to be the all day, every day entertainment machine? ME! What fun. I tell you what – I love my daughter to bits, but after a few days, I think we were both desperate for the company of our own respective peer group. Now, there are tons of families here where we live, and playgrounds, and a kiddie pool, so I kept taking her to these places. I’d resolved that I’d introduce myself to other parents at the playground. Do you know, every bloomin’ time I’d see some Western-looking mums at the playground, I’d start over to introduce myself, and damned if they weren’t speaking French, or German. THIS DOES NOT HELP ME!

So basically, it was really really lonely, except of course I had Mathilda, and she is jolly good company indeed if, say, you want to dress and undress and re-dress Barbie dolls, put stickers on various body parts, or watch Toy Story for 40 or 50 thousand times. However she is not quite so good at things like being quiet, drinking wine, or watching films that do not feature animated characters with their own line of merchandise.

So that was exhaustion factor number one: the small child dynamo. On top of that then add the fact of trying to figure out how everything works, all the time. I had to just guess at how to operate the washing machine. To be honest I am still not sure I’m doing it properly but our clothes are not smelly so I must be doing OK. Crossing the street here takes every ounce of concentration I can summon, so as not to be run over by any manner of vehicle. Food shopping – oh god don’t even get me started; this will not doubt be another whole post someday soon. Suffice it to say, it can be quite hard to tell if a box contains cat food or breakfast cereal, if the only clue you really have to go on is that the design on the box is of a cartoon cat riding a skateboard.

Mixed in with all this was the fact that I was unable to do my job. My employer back in the UK was generous enough to agree to allow me to continue to work, as my work is all internet based, and in theory can be done from anywhere in the world. She agreed to let me try to carry on working, and we would see how it would work out. Well of course I did not expect that it wouldn’t, because I thought M would be in school, and Gus would be back with us, and of course I could still work. But I couldn’t. I was so drained, all the time. I would try to log in and do some work as and when I could but it was 30 minutes here, an hour there at best and of course who can get anything done that way? So I had to start facing the fact that I was going to lose my job, and this was very depressing. Not that I make so much money (I work for an educational charity, hello) but I really really like my work, and also I am having a really hard time with the idea of being just a ‘consumer’ and not a ‘producer’. If I’d been able to keep working properly we’d have been banking a good thousand pounds sterling a month in the UK that we could have used towards retirement savings, helping out family members etc and so now that isn’t going to happen and so I feel like I’m not contributing to my family’s financial well-being. Anyway that’s all still in a state of flux and it’s bumming me out thinking about it so I’m gonna stop writing about that now.

Bottom line: it’s been a hard slog. And hot too, good god, once the summer heat set in, it was intense. But hey, here is the good news – it is all getting much better. Gus is home. Mathilda is in school. The weather is wonderful. I haven’t entirely lost my job (yet). I can tell cat food from cereal. Things are slowly but surely working themselves out.

When things were at their worst – really, when I was at my worst – I started keeping a list of things that were “good”. I tried to write at least one thing each day that was positive. A person I met, something I’d seen, a new food I’d tried, whatever. Just something that when I was having one of my “I fucking hate this place it’s shit get me out of here I fucking hate this place” moments (and there were many… soooo many…) I could read through them and find things to be grateful for. It helped a lot. I’ve also generally tried, when I’ve had difficult times in my life, to be grateful for what I’ve got and to keep in mind that others have much heavier loads to bear. At the end of the day, my problems boiled down to “boo hoo, I have to spend all day with my own kid and I have no one to drink cocktails with”, when you really come right down to it, so I can’t expect too much sympathy from, say, a woman in Africa who has to risk her life daily just to go out and try to gather enough firewood to prepare one meager meal for her family. So, I’m done bitching and moaning -for now…

Doctor, doctor

toilet So I was gonna write some background here today, some stuff about when we got here, settling in, etc etc. But now I’m all distracted because I went to the doctor today and now I can’t think about anything but that. Don’t worry, I’m fine, I’m not dying or anything even close. Let me explain:

When a foreigner moves to Shanghai, or presumably anywhere in China, before you can get your resident visa you have to go get a physical and be determined fit enough, so you’re not dragging around a load of typhoid or whatever. There’s a clinic just about everyone goes to for this process, it’s a real cattle call – go this room, cough; go to the next room, have an EKG; go to this room; have your internal organs probed, etc. I went there a few days after arriving and results showed that I am fine and dandy – except that I apparently have “multiple gallstones”. Multiple – is that, like, 3, or 70? Dunno. I just have them, that is all I am told.

So at first I was kinda freaked out – oh my god! I have gallstones! what the hell! – but then I looked it up on the internet (as you do) and found out that actually lots of people have gallstones and don’t even know it (erm, like me, until this exam) and it’s not a problem, unless it’s a problem. OK then, no problem!

Then in late July and August, I had four… what to call them, attacks? episodes? Basically I woke up several times in the night with severe cramps, but not like any kind of stomach cramps I’d ever had before. Hard to explain what they felt like. So let’s just say, they bloody hurt rather a lot. And then it would pass, until the next time. And, I started having some general stomach discomfort.

Some of you who are old enough will remember that once upon a time Steve Martin used to make movies that were actually very funny. You may then also remember that upon leaving home, Navin R. Johnson was given 3 excellent pieces of advice from his father and brother:
1. The Lord loves a workin’ man.
2. Don’t trust whitey.
3. See a doctor and get rid of it.
These are indeed words to live by, and so it became clear that it was time to act on number 3. I made an appointment.

We have private health care coverage as part of our expat coverage, which I will say is a very good thing, as local health care is, from what little I have seen, a bit third world. I had to take Mathilda for a physical at a local clinic before she could begin kindergarten and it was shocking. I mean really, shocking. Old people with canulas walking through the halls holding up their fluid bottles. M had to have a urine and a blood test so here was the procedure:
-go to window 5 and get a little plastic cup
-take little plastic cup to the toilet down the hall
-walk back down the hall to window 6 carrying cup of wee
-stand there in the queue at window 6, holding little cup of wee
-try not to spill cup of wee on old people pushing down the halls with canulas
– hand cup of wee to person at window 6
– hold down hand of 3 year old who is freaking out as her finger is pricked for the blood test
-sit with petulant 3 year old holding cotton ball on finger, trying not be tripped over by old people with canulas pushing down hall
-try to ignore sea of cotton balls with single blood spots discarded by previous testees under chairs

Seriously, the first thing I did after we left that clinic was wipe my child down head to toe with wet wipes and douse her with Purell.

Now let me tell you about the doctor’s office I went to today. Well first, to get to it, I went past the Ferrari and Maserati showroom to the 4th floor. Walking into reception was like walking into the lobby of a hotel. A small, chic, boutique hotel. Dark wood, water feature (feng shui and all that), giant upholstered armchairs, paintings and sculptures. I imagine when Madonna goes to the doctor’s office, it must look much like this one.

I fill out my forms, blah blah, read some high-end interior design magazine featuring gorgeous things I can’t even imagine actually having in my house, and wait to see the doctor. My appointment is at 1. I am in the seat in the consultation room at 1:01 and the first thing the doctor says is “I am terribly sorry for keeping you waiting.” Yeah, you should be, you bastard – I had to spend almost a whole extra half minute listening to the soothing sound of running water and turning glossy magazine pages.

Anyway, Dr. Sun Bo and I, we have a chat about me, my belly, my g-stones, all that business, that being the business at hand, and suchlike. He has a good grope around my organs for a bit (hey now, not nearly as exciting as what you’re thinking, you pervert) and declares that he reckons I do not have any tumors, which is both a relief and a shock, as a) clearly I do not want to have any tumors, but b) I hadn’t thought that a possibility, and now I know it is, except apparently it’s not. He also says he thinks that whilst I may indeed have had gall bladder attacks (the things that woke me up at night) as a result of having a stone blocking a duct, the fact that its not happened again in the past month and that I’m not yelping with pain when he fondles my gall bladder probably means it has passed and gone on its merry way.

He decides to do a blood test, to make sure I don’t have some particular bacterial infection that could be causing the more recent nausea. Great, who doesn’t love getting stuck with needles! Well OK, some folks are into that but me, not so much. But it’s not a big deal, fine. The nurse takes my blood and says I’ll need to wait about 15 minutes for the result. I’m thinking I’ll just be going back to the boutique hotel lobby to wait but no! She shows me to a private room. With satellite TV. And a really nice bathroom (that’s it in the picture up top) with L’occitane toiletries. OK then.

In the end, blood test is fine, I just have ‘general dyspepsia’ and have to take a pill every morning for the next 2 weeks. Bloody hell though that clinic is nice; I am going to have to keep finding things wrong with me so I can go back. Fortunately this should not be a problem as I have no end of complaints. Just ask my husband.

Ni hao, y’all


Hello friends, hello family, hello random strangers who have somehow wandered in here. My lovely cousin Bob has set up this blog for me as a place where I can record the adventures of me, my husband and our amazing little daughter as we settle into our life here in Shanghai. Actually he set it up for me months ago, and we have been here – I can hardly believe this – for nearly five months already. It doesn’t possible it can have been so long but this is what the calendar says, so. For various reasons I haven’t gotten this thing going until now, but I won’t go into all that now – suffice it to say, it was really rough going at first, in future posts maybe I’ll explore a bit more about that.

But hey look now, here it is, this is my blog, and I’m going to try to write at least a little bit in it every day, so bookmark this and check back in now and again. At the moment it’s late and I’m tired so I’m not going to write too much more just now, I just really wanted to get this thing started as I have been telling myself I would do for ages now! There’s lots to tell you and we really miss all of you immensely (well maybe not you random strangers quite so much). Please let us know how you are doing as well.