Guess who just found a stack of old notices sent by the compound management office? Comedy gold!
At the end of the month I always have the horrible realization that it is time to pay the bills. Everyone has this feeling I suppose—the dread of parting with your hard earned money, the hope that it won’t take up too much of your time. In the United States, I used to have things organized so that I did most of it online. The mortgage gets paid automatically; the other things have scheduled payments. Aside from forgetting to put money in the account, my worst fear was forgetting my password or my user name for the gas company. For those few bills that still required a check to be written, I took care of that with my handy dandy checkbook. I could buy stamps and then put the bill in my mailbox for the mailman to pick up. If I was feeling like taking a little walk I could saunter down Roland Avenue, get a coffee at my Starbucks, chat with my friendly lady at the Deepdene Post Office (also named Gwen!), and then shop at the Children’s Bookstore after I had mailed my letter. So civilized when you think about it. And, I must add, so easy. So easy, in fact that I assumed China would be similar. Doesn’t everyone do things this way?
Oh, you all know by now what to expect here! The answer is no. No way. Paying my bills in Shanghai is nothing like doing this in the United States. China runs on cash. I do have what is essentially a debit card, but I can’t use anything resembling online banking because I can’t read characters. I apologize if all the native Mandarin speakers would scoff at my description of how things get done around here, but for an English-speaking White lady getting the bills paid ain’t easy!
Mark had been living in Shanghai for a while before the rest of us arrived, so he had managed to figure out a few things. Unfortunately, his apartment was serviced and so some of the things that became important for me were new for him as well. We set up the bank accounts (a story of epic hilarity and frustration as well), but couldn’t do much more than get money from an ATM or pay for groceries at places that accept Union Pay. This is basically the only type of card you can use in many places. Occasionally my AMEX or US bankcards will work, but sometimes it is Union Pay or the highway so it is helpful to have a Chinese bank account. However, most of the time I need to pay for things in cash and especially in the beginning this was frustrating. In the US, I carry very little cash. This keeps me from spending it. Here I need cash to pay for everything, which brings us to my bill paying dilemma.
In Shanghai I need to pay my bills in cash. Mark handles the rent and a few other things. Some of that is cash and some of that is wired directly. The utilities—phone, gas, electric—I pay and I do it all in cash. This is a multistep process that usually goes something like this:
- The bills arrive in the mail. The ayi checks the mail and then hides the bills for me to find somewhere around the house.
- I find the bills! I can’t read what they say, of course, so I must blindly accept that they are correct. Sometimes I get a bill or a note that I have never seen before. Guess what I do then? I either find someone to help me translate or I just pay it to avoid the hassle of human contact. Wheee!
- I go to an ATM to get money to pay the bills. To give you an idea of the ridiculousness of this, our electric bill is usually more than 2000 rmb a month. Most ATMs only let you get out 2000rmb at a time. To pay the bills and then also hand our ayi her wad of money at the end of the month, I stand at the machine asking it to give me 2000 rmb multiple times. I then stuff what looks like an obscene amount of money in my bag.
- Next I do something crazy! Most people send their ayi or driver to pay the bills for them, but because getting all this cash means I am already out, I just go ahead and pay them myself at Family Mart. What is Family Mart, you ask? This is basically 7-11. In Shanghai I pay my bills at 7-11, which, obviously, is weird.
Paying bills at the convenience store takes some getting used to. Family Mart is not a welcoming place. It is bright and smells like the crazy mystery meat that is sold there on sticks in these gross little cups of liquid. Is it broth? Is it water? I will never find out because I will never, ever buy this. There is the discomfort of pulling out a wad of cash in front of a dozen Chinese customers. This never gets easier as everyone here is in everyone else’s business pretty much all the time. No one averts their eyes. No one gives you a little space to spill the contents of your wallet on the counter and then proceed to count to a million. People sometimes see me and then deliberately cut in front of me because, hey this is how we do it in China, and I also look too White to cuss at anyone in Mandarin. My stack of bills is also a hint that I will be camped out for a bit with the cashier so they are willing to knock me over to avoid spending that quality time with me.
Late bills cannot be paid at Family Mart, those have to be paid somewhere else. I have no idea where that is, of course, so it is of the utmost importance that I make my trek to Family Mart before the end of the month. Handing the cashier a late bill requires more Mandarin than I can manage and the extra ire of my fellow customers.
Often either the cashier or another customer will comment on my expensive bills. They make noises and discuss amongst themselves. Watching an expat spend some of what most Chinese assume is an endless supply of money is fascinating. It requires comment. I understand this. It costs more money than it should to heat and cool our house. We should all just put on a jacket in the winter and get used to being sweaty in the summer. We won’t do this, of course, and so I keep being the object of opinions in Family Mart.
Mark contends that it is not the amount of money that I am spending that garners so much attention, but rather, the fact that I am spending this money myself. The combination of expat utility bills and the actual expat paying them is the part that is blowing people’s minds. You have the money to pay those bills but not the sense to hire someone else to do that for you? What are you, insane? I think we all know the answer to this question. Of course I am insane! I moved my family to China and now I am paying bills in Family Mart! That is all the proof you need.
There are limits to my patience. I know this surprises you. After all my previous blog posts concerning my inability to just “let it go,” I am sure you were thinking that eventually I would be full of vanilla cupcakes and rainbows. While I am pretty certain no one was expecting sunshine from over here, I have found it hard to put up new posts because I am feeling so negative about China. And that isn’t really fair to China. While my rants about Shanghai are often funny, sometimes I can’t seem to see the humor in certain situations. When I get to that point, there is no turning back and my mood tends to poison the whole house.
I didn’t want to come back to Shanghai after this summer and was finding it hard to motivate to pack and organize all the things we would need and want once my direct access to Target was cut off. A few days before our departure I found myself waking up in the wee hours to obsess over all the things about China that drive me crazy. That state of mind has lifted a bit since the end of July, but not much. This wouldn’t be a problem if I were here in Shanghai alone or just with my husband, but I am here with those wonderfully impressionable children that I decided to drag along for this adventure. Part of my job as a parent living abroad is to make the experience as enriching for them as possible. This does not mean that I make everything easy or that I keep them from having those difficult moments, but it does mean that I try to keep my feelings to myself when I am particularly venomous about our host culture. Unfortunately, I don’t have much of a poker face. I am also (surprise!) a notorious complainer. These two things combined with our general lack of privacy here in our cramped living space means I have been doing a terrible job of focusing on the positive.
This brings us to a few nights ago when my unhappiness was really ticking along. One of the boys was also having a ShangLow day and was railing against the table manners of the Chinese. This is certainly something that you will never hear me defending, particularly as my Southern roots tend to make themselves apparent when it comes to moments like these. That said, I know it isn’t up to me to decide what is and what isn’t polite here in China. If you want to know about how to behave in the United States, feel free to ask. If you want to see me volunteer this information as we sit with a table full of Chinese nationals eating dinner, good luck. You won’t hear a peep out of me. This means my house is often ground zero for heated discussions concerning manners and what is and isn’t acceptable. Inside our house, the US rules apply although Mark has taken to slurping his soup and drinks as if he grew up in Puxi. The kids ride the line sometimes, but they are well aware of the limits of cultural exchange here at Chez Erickson. The child in question was furious, and deservedly so, at having witnessed what they thought were atrocious manners. Of course, the other individual in this scenario might have seen things differently, but I was trying to provide some good mama vibes. I held my own until faced with, “Name one good thing about Chinese culture!”
Ouch. And here is where I drop the ball both as a parent and as a guest in a country that is not my own. For all the things I complain about, there have been some wonderful things that have happened here in China. I have some fabulous Chinese colleagues and friends who have opened their hearts to me and have helped me when there was no reason to do so. There are many things about Chinese culture that I respect and admire. I may not always understand China, but I can respect history. I can see the good in individuals even when the overall picture frustrates me. But do I say this? Do I volunteer this information to my child as he shakes his fist at the sky? No. I hesitate. And this is just enough time for his eyes to grow wide and his mouth to harden and for him to spit out, “See! Even you can’t think of one positive thing!” And I stammer and stall as I try to push down the part of me that is angry and annoyed and remember the part of me that can see the shiny happy stuff. But the moment is already gone and I have missed the chance to say what needs to be said, to put the train back on the track and convince my child to give things some time. I have done the thing I have tried so hard not to do and let my feelings become the conversation here at home.
The first thing our ayi says to me after our return to Shanghai…
Sally: “Oh, you only got a little bit fat on vacation! Usually you get so much fatter. But the kids, they got really fat!” (Here she pinches Henry’s not very fat cheeks for emphasis.) “Fat, fat, fat!”
Ah, there’s no place like home.
Written last week on the plane ride back to sweet, sweet shopping freedom…
We’re on our way back to the USA for the summer. This year has been a little light on postings. I apologize. Apparently, working full time means less time to get finished things onto the blog. I do have quite a few things started and abandoned that could perhaps still make an appearance. I have big writing goals for the summer. I always have these, of course. Maybe this year I will be able to meet some of them! Keep your fingers crossed.
But for now, an answer to a burning question! People often want to know what we bring home in the summer and the kinds of things we smuggle back in our suitcases to Shanghai. Maybe “smuggle” is the wrong word since China has never really bothered to investigate our suitcases in all the times we have gone back and forth. When we lived in Australia, I used to get stopped all the time and have things confiscated. Ranch dressing mix never made it in. It has dried milk powder in it and for the Aussies milk products of any kind were a no-no. My bags always got a thorough search. Going from the USA to China, TSA always goes through the bags as well. We get those nice little notes that inform us someone has looked through our stuff. I am sure they wonder what the hell we are doing, bringing what must look like a crazy amount of Target with us as we head to the Middle Kingdom. The Chinese probably care about some things coming in, but my ever-growing list of must haves isn’t anything they are interested in wasting their time finding. China is a busy, busy place. China has no time to worry about my suitcases full of contraband. They wave us through every single time.
To get ready for vacation, I always calculate my bags and their weight. But let’s be honest, I am only really concerned with weight on the trip back to Shanghai. I can bring home three 70 pound bags and so can Mark. The kids only get one 50 pound bag each, but still this means I can bring back 9 bags! So what do I bring from China to the USA? Empty suitcases, of course! I put bags inside bags to be sure I have enough of them for the return journey to Shanghai. I should also add that on the way back to China, those bags are filled to within half a pound of their maximum weight. Sometimes the agent checking us in will clap in appreciation. My skills are that impressive. So what’s in the bags? All this…
Things I Bring Back from the United States in No Particular Order:
- Peanut Butter
- Breakfast Cereal!
- Any and all over the counter medicine
- Crackers and Triscuits
- Dog Treats
- Granola Bars, Nutragrain Bars, Luna Bars
- Dry Onion Soup Mix
- Dry Hidden Valley Ranch Dressing Mix
- Electronic Components for Mark
- Vanilla Extract
- Laundry detergent
- Chocolate Chips
- Shoes that fit for me
- Cheap clothes for the kids
- Shoes for the kids
- Make up
- Knitting Supplies
- Protein Powder
- Mio Drink Drops
- Cocoa (for baking)
- Cocoa Mix (for the kids to drink)
- Panko Bread Crumbs
- Dog Toys and Bones
- Ingredients for anything I want to make for Thanksgiving
- American Halloween candy
- Halloween costumes
- Dog medicine (Heartworm and Flea and Tick)
- Cat stuff
- Asthma medication
- Books for the school’s library
- Magic Erasers
- Dishwashing detergent
- BBQ Sauce (Sweet Baby Ray’s)
Yes, I know that many of these things are MADE IN CHINA. The dirty little secret here is that those things are made for export. You cannot buy them in China. Many of the other things I am hauling internationally are available in China. In order to buy them, however, I need to get a second job or take out a loan. It is very hard to just let that go when you are standing in Target and see something priced at $3 knowing that in Shanghai I would pay so so so much more.
Before you judge, I would like to mention that people we know bring in much crazier things. Entire blocks of cheddar cheese, for example. Not the small ones, mind you, but the ones from the deli. They buy the entire block and shove it in their suitcases. Someone else we know brought in a WHOLE LAMB. Yes, that’s what I said. They like lamb and they don’t trust the meat in China. While I was surprised that this managed to be something one could bring in a suitcase, I was also a little jealous that I hadn’t thought of it first. Sometimes desperation will do that to you. If you have a baby you will certainly smuggle baby formula and diapers. Luckily, I am past that stage so instead I have considered bringing back Maryland crab cakes, frozen veggie sausage, and frozen biscuits. What is left of my good sense stops me. For now. But you never know. If you happen to see us in the airport and we have a suitcase that looks a little, um, leaky, please just ignore us.
When you have to miss an important birthday because you live in China…
In Shanghai we keep accumulating more pets. First there was Ming Ming the street kitten, adopted under duress. Lucas had been begging for a cat and so China obliged by letting a stray have a litter of kittens in our utility closet. For once I was ahead of the game and after I encouraged all the neighborhood kids to peek at the kittens over and over, the mama cat finally wised up and moved them all as far away from Team Erickson as possible. But China is not easily outsmarted; so early in the spring another brand new kitten appeared, crying and helpless on our neighbors’ sidewalk. Lucas was loading the poor thing into a box before any of the other neighborhood kids even had an idea that there might be an available kitten. I will admit that I went soft. She really was cute—so tiny and helpless. Even once she started growing like crazy she was still pretty adorable. Evidence:
Mean as a snake. Oh, Ming Ming is still cute, but after we left her with only the dog and the ayi for company all summer long she has developed some issues. She loves the dog with an unnatural passion, for one, and she barely tolerates people. Her favorite activity is hiding in random shopping bags and launching herself at unsuspecting children. After Ming Ming the Terrible, I vowed that we were done with pets. This, of course, is like daring the universe to drop something in your lap. And being in China, you know it won’t be your ordinary kind of thing, right? The kids were begging for a rabbit so what did China decide to let loose all over the neighborhood? Bunnies, of course! Well played, China. Well played.
The specifics aren’t important, but let’s just say they involved Chinese New Year fireworks, multiple neighbors chasing rabbits, and, ultimately, the Erickson children bringing one of the escapees into our house. This time I stood firm. No rabbit. Mark was less steadfast. We now have a bunny.
The important thing here is for us all to realize the ultimate silver lining. Yes, I have an extra pet to house and feed. Yes, I am yelling constantly about the care of the rabbit. But without the rabbit I would never have had the need to go to a Chinese pet supply store! I would never been able to compare the ease and reliability of yet another American institution to the haphazard unpredictability of a Chinese one!
Yes, over the Chinese New Year holiday I found myself trekking across the river to go to one of the bigger pet supply stores in Shanghai. I would love to say it came highly recommended, but a tepid and reserved recommendation was enough for me. Rabbits need stuff, apparently, and our local pet shop did not have anything even resembling rabbit supplies. No matter! There are other places with the things we need! And so off I went to Pet Zoo.
I can see why you might be thinking that Shanghai’s Pet Zoo is like Pet Smart or PetCo in the United States. You would be wrong to think this. Does Pet Smart feature disco lighting? I think not. Does PetCo have the feel of a post apocalyptic 7-11? No, it does not. Only Pet Zoo can achieve these things. Only Pet Zoo.
Points for honesty, I suppose. Do not bring your exotic pet for boarding at Pet Zoo if you expect it to be alive when you come to pick it back up. Consider yourself warned.
There are pets for sale at Pet Zoo in case you want to pick up something to replace the iguana they were unable to keep alive for you during your trip to Thailand. I thought about taking a few photos of the cats they had labeled “Garfield” except the amount of cat snot on the plexiglass obscured their snarling little faces. I also refrained from photographing the various rodents and such they had in open bins at the back of the store. The rabbit food and hay was back there, so I looked around as I picked up my things. The hamsters, guinea pigs, and rabbits are all in these plastic enclosures. I assume this encourages lots of little hands to sample the merchandise. As I passed the guinea pigs, they all began making a horrible racket and only stopped their squeaking when I clucked my tongue and shushed them. I am the guinea pig whisperer! My elation at my new found powers did not last long, however. I turned my attention to the hamsters and discovered a terrifying truth about PetZoo. The hamsters were all burrowed into the cedar shavings when I looked into their little cage. You know how sometimes it looks like animals are dead but they are really just sleeping? This is not always the case at Pet Zoo. Sometimes they are really just dead. Sometimes you can be sure of this because their front end is missing.
I would like to take a moment now to remind you that all the things on this blog ACTUALLY HAPPEN. I wish I was making this part up, but Pet Zoo had only the back end of a hamster in one of those cages. How he got that way I am not sure, but I am pretty confident that the other hamsters knew something about it. He had been there for a while—long enough for his pitiful little rib bones to be dry and for there to be no sign of anything bloody. The kids were appalled that I didn’t make a huge scene in the store, but come on! No matter what the staff said it wouldn’t have made a difference. Either they knew about the hamster murder and ignored it or they didn’t have any idea about their cannibal hamsters. Six of one, half a dozen of the other. You say potato… Sometimes you decide to just pay for your rabbit food and get out while the getting’s good. On the up side, I am pretty sure Pet Zoo would be willing to sell you a half price hamster. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)
Remember when I described the meat section of Carrefour? How the meat is in these big open bins and you choose the pieces you want? Here is more proof that I am not crazy and that Chinese shoppers value “creative” solutions to problems. Enjoy!
The latest from Lucas…
I apparently just became a victim of an accidental prank call. This is how it went:
I was texting my mom about my homework, when the phone rang. I answered it, saying “Hello, Erickson residence”. The voice on the other line sounded like a woman. (She was also southern, which adds to the funniness of the story later.) So anyway, back to the point. She didn’t say anything for a minute. I said “Hello? Who is this?” she answered back “Hi, are you Spanish?” I was wondering why she would ask, but I answered, “Um… no”. She asked who I was, and I told her that my name was Lucas Erickson. She told me she was looking for someone named ‘David’, but everything each of us said followed a little bit of hesitation. I thought it was just a normal, wrong number problem, and I told her that she had the wrong number. She pushed on saying, “Come on, I know it’s you!” I tried to persuade her that I wasn’t this ‘David’ but she wouldn’t listen to anything I said, I don’t know how exactly I sounded Spanish over the phone. I eventually got to the point where I got bored with repeating “No” over and over again, so I just hung up. She called back a second time, this time mumbling something as soon as I answered. I said, “What?” She responded back with the same mumbling, just a little bit louder than before. Then a Russian-sounding man got on the line, and said “Hey!” In my opinion, it’s hard enough as-is to understand Russian people, add that to the fact that he sounded like he had a frog stuck in his throat. At this point, I was starting to consider that these people might be stalking me and I might somehow end up gagged, tied up, and stuffed into the back of their van driving to who-knows-where, so I just hung up. I had an idea now, and so the next time they called me back, (Which was in like five seconds), I put my great mind to use. The conversation went like this:
Her: “Yes, hi”
Me: “I don’t know you people, I’m twelve years old, my name is Lucas Erickson, and I live in China. If you don’t believe me, go to my mom’s blog, ericksonsinchina.com”.
Her: “You lying motherf**ker!”
Me: “You know what, screw you!”
I then hung up on her, and went back to playing my video game. I was called again a little while after, and she incoherently mumbled what I think was “Sorry”, then I heard her tell someone behind her, (Unless she was talking to herself), that they should have believed me the first time. I hung up, and wasn’t called again. Good riddance. I hope they’re reading this blog right now, and if they are, was it really necessary to call me a lying motherf**ker?
*Note: This post was written before we left Shanghai for our holiday break. I was just too overcome by the smog to actually post it.
The pollution in Shanghai has been out of control. Maybe you have heard? Maybe you have Facebook friends constantly posting photos of the hazy view outside their living room windows? No? We obviously don’t have the same taste in friends then, because many of mine have been dedicating their time and attention to posting shots of what looks like San Francisco fog but is, in fact, horrible smog. The pollution has always been something we complain about. There are rules about when the kids are allowed outside and there is that nifty little scale that tells you how close you are to cheating death by breathing more of the Shanghai air. Of course, we have never had it as bad as Beijing. Remember last year when the poor, poor people of Beijing couldn’t even see a few feet in front of them because the pollution was so horrible? Ahem.
No, that isn’t fog. And even worse, it isn’t even close to sunset. That is a photo of my children waiting at the bus stop in the morning. Waiting and poisoning their tiny little lungs as they gulp down toxic air! It was predictable, I suppose. This is the kind of thing that always happens just when I think I have settled in here. Just when I have made my peace with China and we have eased into some sort of tenuous ceasefire, things fall apart. I apologize to all the other people unfortunate enough to live with us in Shanghai during this trying time. I am sorry you have been drug into this never ending fight between China and myself. Who knew it would get this ugly? Who could have anticipated that China would literally fight dirty?
I have actually been having a few good months over here. I know I shouldn’t say this out loud, but I have been finding my groove. I finished my dissertation and, after banging my head against the wall for a few weeks, I decided to go back to work. There was an opening at the kids’ school in the Admission Office and since I’ve been going to work every day things have really evened out. It turns out being at home with the ayi all day is a little hazardous to my mental health. It probably helps that once you are inside the school you feel like you could be in the United States. Well, almost.
Being at school is most likely the only reason we will survive living in Shanghai if the pollution levels stay as high as they have been. The school has an excellent filtration system. This is lucky for Team Erickson because, you see, I have been living in denial. Despite everyone’s dire warnings about the air quality in general and Lucas’ asthma in particular, I have refused to plan ahead. This is how I deal with the things I cannot change in China. In a place where you get an email from one of the local grocery stores with the title, “2013’s Food Safety Scandals Reviewed (& some festive cheer!),” living in denial becomes the most reasonable option. When everyone else was buying air filters for their houses and stocking up on N95 surgical masks I was apparently focusing on other things. Admittedly, I was most likely arm wrestling Sally the ayi for ultimate control of my household, but I certainly could have taken a break to check into some of the safety issues that are now front and center. Now as the pollution levels have gotten ridiculously high, I find myself having panic attacks on the way to work.
Talking to my colleagues doesn’t make things better. They are shocked at my lack of planning. One of the school nurses took pity on me and gave me a handful of surgical masks for the kids. A fellow parent left another few on my desk. Everyone is encouraging me to get air filters for the house. Of course, those are the things everyone else has been stockpiling. The things that are now impossible to buy! Lucas asked for a respirator for Christmas. A respirator! One evening when the air inside the house began looking like we had a something burning in the kitchen, Mark commented, “We have got to get the hell out of here.”
Which isn’t going to happen any time soon, of course. So I added some extra things to our “bring back from the USA” list. I am hoping that this ensures that the air stays breathable once we get back from our winter break. Like the lice shampoo I buy every vacation as a talisman to prevent the children from getting lice (successful thus far!), maybe a huge stack of masks to keep out the dangerous pollution particles will appease my arch nemesis. China, this time you’ve gone too far.
*Also would like to mention here that the air has been relatively clean since we arrived back with my excessive number of surgical masks. You are welcome, Shanghai.