On CNY we went down the street to see the fireworks and they were so loud I couldn’t hear myself think. They were launching off every kind of firework you could possibly imagine. Next year we’ll be prepared to buy fireworks early because all the stores are closed by CNY. We tried to buy fireworks but there weren’t any left.

Chinese New Year Fireworks!

It was awesome!  There was a big “bang, bang, bang, boom, boom, boom”!  I saw some.  I saw some on different days.  I saw them at our house.  And our house is awesome!  I went to the market where there were lots of plastic toys and swords.  I really wanted my mom to get me something.

Dictated to Gwen the bad mom who wouldn’t buy Henry anything at the market!


At least I had been warned.  The first time I saw it happening, I wasn’t completely shocked.  Someone had pulled his van near the entrance to the compound and parked it.  Our compound has been closed for a while for renovation and I am guessing that drivers have grown accustomed to being able to use some of the space like a parking lot.  In the morning the guys are wiping down the cars, or giving them a full wash, while they block the less frequently used gates.  They make it difficult to get from one curb to another especially since most drivers are not really looking for pedestrians, even in the cross walk.  I never trust that one of the parked vehicles won’t lurch forward, the driver suddenly urgent to move, and whack into one of us as we cross to the other sidewalk.  So the first time, I am walking the two younger kids to school, more concerned about moving vehicles than anything else, when there he is right in front of us.


In any other country, I would have been preparing myself for an altercation.  A strange man with his pants down in front of my children is a pretty big red flag.  As a general rule I try to avoid situations like that.  But in any other country, he would at least be trying to hide if his only intention was peeing.  He wouldn’t have it out on display in a residential neighborhood and not think that some woman walking her kids to school might discover him.  He would think that this immediate need to empty his bladder might be best remedied indoors in a public bathroom of some sort.  He would realize that this emergency stop should be fast and furtive.  I try to ignore it and hope the kids don’t notice.  He takes his time and luckily by the time we get close it isn’t immediately obvious what he is doing.  The kids and I scoot past and neither of them seems to even notice him.

But then it happens on the way home and this time they notice.  It would have been hard not to notice what with the taxi driver having decided to stop and park in the street, blocking a lane of traffic to relieve himself on the bushes.  We can luckily only see his top half—the bushes serving as effective cover of his nether regions—but Ava notices.

“Is that guy peeing?!” she asks incredulously.

“Um, maybe.” I volunteer trying not to draw too much attention, as we get closer to the man in question.  He shows no sign of stopping and doesn’t seem to mind the approaching crowd.

“Is he really peeing”  Henry demands.  “Is his penis out?  I can’t see!  I’m too short!”  He begins jumping and standing on tiptoe in an effort to get a better view.

“Henry, no!” I scold and drag him down the sidewalk.  We pass the man, still occupied with his business, and the kids’ jaws hang open in amazement.

The next time it happens I am standing in front of a neighbor’s house lamenting Ava’s difficult transition to her new school.  We are talking when her eyes suddenly narrow and she becomes fixated on a spot above my shoulder.

“Hey!”  She yells.  “Oh, no!  Don’t you do that!  This is not a toilet!”  I turn to see one of the young security guards standing on the edge of the bushes.  I am not sure he was actually planning to pee, but the neighbor stands firm.  “Oh yes he was, and I am sorry, but I am just through with it.  Done.”  She begins yelling at him again.  “Move along!  Don’t you do that there!”  He doesn’t speak any English and just looks at us, confused.  He motions with his arm in a gesture that doesn’t seem to mean anything, but she yells, “That’s right, go somewhere else!” and he does.  “He’s just going to hide in those bushes further down and pee over there.”  She tells me, exasperated.  She yells after him, “Pig!” and then turns back to our conversation.  “Is a pig even considered a dirty animal in China?  I don’t know.”

“I’m not sure,” I confess.  “Maybe a dog is dirtier?”  I helpfully suggest.

“You may be right,” she says, nodding, “Maybe a dog.”

Hospital Tour

The lost bag turned out to be a nonevent.  Once the restaurant opened my bag was sitting behind the bar. It had been there all night and everything was still in it when we picked it up.  One of the few things that really should have been a big deal but wasn’t, as opposed to all the little things here that should be easy but are enormously difficult.  Figuring out where to get things that we have become accustomed to as “necessities”, organizing deliverymen, and finding simple things that would normally take a trip to Target all become day-long ordeals for me in China.  And we aren’t even out in some remote area; we are living in a giant, thriving city.  A city where you would think pretty much anything would be available.  Not so, of course, and one of those things is emergency care.

Health care in general here operates on a different system.  Mark’s business has need for strong healthcare services, and, living in Baltimore, we have always had numerous choices not only for primary physicians, but also for hospitals and specialists.  I loved our pediatrician.  Loved, loved, loved him.  We plan on visiting Dr. Bodnar every summer when we head to Grandmom and GrandDad’s house.  The dentist, too, particularly after I got a good dose of Shanghai healthcare last week.

Now, I am no expert and we haven’t yet had to use much in the way of facilities here, but when the younger kids’ school offered a “Hospital Tour”, I was told it was vital to attend.  Normally, I wouldn’t be very interested in a tour like that.  I mean, I can figure out how to get to the doctor, right?  I have three kids- two of them frequent flyers in the emergency room.  When I jokingly mentioned this to the parent liaison at school, she signed me up right away and even handed me the printed information so that I could read it in advance.  Ha, ha, um… ha?  Actually, not funny.  Not funny at all.

When I attended the orientation at Lucas’ school I had gotten a bit of a feel for how serious things might be if there was an emergency for us here.  Lucas has asthma.  It doesn’t bother him much and he doesn’t need an inhaler, but it can give him a nasty cough and sometimes (like for several years in a row, always right before Christmas) give him pneumonia.  Not serious, in the hospital pneumonia, but the kind that lingers and makes you look like hell and sound even worse.  Every single time I tell someone in Shanghai that Lucas has asthma their face changes.  “Did you bring plenty of his medicine?”  they nervously ask,  “From home?”  They want to know if I have found a doctor yet.  Maybe they have heard that there might be a new one- a good one—at a particular place. The Western doctors don’t stay long, apparently, and they are often on rotations that move them in and out of the country.  You might find one you like, people warn, and then never see them again.  They might not be there when you need them like some sort of horror movie script.

Lucas needed a test for tuberculosis.  I hadn’t realized before we left the States and only found out once we were here with no trip back planned for several months.  The school needed it and wouldn’t wait very long.  All new students—no exceptions.  I asked the school nurse where I should go to get the test done and she gave me the card of a local hospital.  I say local, but it is 45 minutes from my house and on the other side of the river.  I showed the card to some of the mothers from the PTSA and everyone agreed that this was the only place they would “trust”, the only place that would have a “safe” test.

If you have ever had the chance to be tested for tb, then you know that the test requires two visits to the doctor.  The first is to get the needle prick to inject you with the test and the second is to actually look at the pinprick site to note any changes in the skin.  There was no way to head over to that hospital, especially not twice over the course of a few days, without missing school and spending the entire day in a taxi.  Surely there must be some closer place to do this, right?  Wrong.  I called a few of the places that were in my handy dandy sneak peek for the hospital tour only to learn that no one does the test.  They would do a chest X-ray, but nothing else.  It seemed extreme to have an X-ray when we already knew Lucas didn’t have any possibility of having tb.  Maybe I was misunderstanding.  Maybe this was a language mix up.  I called Mark who had his assistant call the clinics back.  Even in Mandarin the answer was the same.  There is only one place to get the test and it was going to eat up two full days making the test happen.  So I made an appointment for the X-ray.  The more complicated thing was once again somehow going to be easier.

Going on the hospital tour cleared up some of these issues.  Well, not cleared up, actually.  The hospital tour made it crystal clear that I had no idea what we were getting into when we came to Shanghai.  Yes, it is a modern city in many ways, but it is still a Chinese city with a very different system when it comes to healthcare, a system that is going to take me a while to figure out.

It turns out that the moms I met at Lucas’ school were right.  There really is only one hospital where you can get 24 hour Western medicine with English speaking doctors all in one self-contained place.  The hospital that is 45 minutes away, of course!  The focus of the tour was to acquaint us with the places that were closer to us in the event of an emergency.  Because in a real emergency 45 minutes might be too far away.  The other moms had cautioned not to go anywhere else other than the Western hospital “unless you are bleeding to death”.  There is apparently some truth to this so we were investigating the places where we would go when we needed immediate care.  We had a sit down session first before getting on the bus.

The quick takeaways:

  1. Never call an ambulance unless you cannot get the person into a cab.  The ambulances here are not equipped with anything medical and are not staffed by paramedics.  When one had to come to the school, they used a bed sheet to get the patient to the elevator, laid her on the floor once they got there, and then picked her up in the sheet again to get her to a van.  They will take you to the nearest hospital by whatever route they choose and then you will need to pay them when you get out.  They might check your blood pressure but they will charge you extra for it.
  2. You need to preregister at your hospital of choice because they will make you register before they will treat you.
  3. You might need to pay upfront so keep a giant wad of cash (like 20,000 rmb!!) and your passports handy.
  4. We need multiple emergency cards with the hospital address printed in Chinese for the taxi driver and we need to keep all the emergency information handy so that we can grab it and run out the door, hopefully with some friend or neighbor who speaks Chinese.
  5. In the event of a real emergency in the middle of the night we will most likely end up in a Chinese hospital.

It was confusing, particularly since after hours many of the English speaking places did not inspire confidence.  At one, the one that seemed the most promising, the person showing us around made a point to emphasize the “imported medicine”, catered food, and the great beds from Italy.  We never met a doctor.  The guide told us that there weren’t many people there at night because there weren’t “many emergencies” and that if no one was at the desk it meant they were in the back and we should yell to get their attention.  Most telling, perhaps, was the fact that she told us at night they could handle “fevers, stomach aches, things like that”, but that if you were in a car accident then you should go to the Chinese hospital.  Most of the places are special expat parts of a regular Chinese hospital and we had to walk through them to get to the Western sections.  It was always crowded with both the very sick and the healthy all mixed together.  They were loud and people moved through the building like they do on the street, filling all the available space.  People were smoking.  Bandaged eyes and heads were on full display.  One patient lay on a gurney close to the front door.  When we got back on the bus we slathered ourselves in hand sanitizer.

I hadn’t realized that you couldn’t get any medicine over the counter.  I didn’t know you needed to pay for individual items, like a cast for a broken arm, for example, before you could have the arm set.  Even if I spoke Mandarin, the hospital would still be impossible.  Vaccines were recommended that had never occurred to me in the United States.  We talked about the need for everyone to have first aid training.  I mentioned that I had been recertified in CPR last year.  That was good, the parent liaison agreed, but then she reminded me, there isn’t any 911 here.  In China, I’m the paramedic.  That is a job I never intended to have.  Crap.

New Year’s Rocking Eve!

This year our New Year’s Eve was destined to be low key.  I had wonderful visions of ringing in the new year in our new house, champagne in hand, but that was not to be.  First of all, our lease didn’t actually start until the first.  The landlord was nice enough to give us access to the place a few days early so that our sea shipment could be delivered, but the house was unfurnished and remedying that would take countless trips to IKEA.  So the evening of the 31st found us still in the hotel and all still jet lagged and exhausted.  The hotel was great, but it is always hard to settle in when you are between places.  The kids loved the super extravagant breakfast in the morning (Multiple stations!  Miso soup!  Unlimited fruit!  Chinese people fawning all over them!).  Ava spent more time than is healthy using the giant bathtub and multiple showerheads.  She loves the chance to have a “spa day” and used the hairdryer and mini lotions and padded around in the complimentary guest slippers. We were supposed to spend New Year’s Eve sleeping in our own new beds, but nothing is ever easy when moving and China adds a whole new element.

We had planned to make one big trip to purchase the furniture since initially the landlord (lady, actually) had requested final say on EVERY piece of furniture.  She was going to travel 4 hours on the train to have a shopping day with me.  While I had been dreading the possibility of this shopping trip, it might have been a dream come true compared with how things actually happened.  We were set for smooth sailing once we found out how IKEA works here.  Our IKEA here has a delivery service set up and they can assemble the furniture for you as well.  The fee was so small that I almost felt bad accepting the offer.  90rmb for delivery!  Seriously, divide that by 6 and you can see why I was shocked.  Fifteen dollars!  Highway robbery!  There is, of course, a catch.  Since it is IKEA, many of our things were still self service and I still needed to get them on my own.  Mark and the boys had left to head back to the hotel.  Henry was so jet lagged that he was falling asleep on the display furniture, so after we decided on the beds and mattresses, Mark took them back to crash.  Only Ava stayed with me to help- I think she thought it was going to be a fun night of shopping.  How wrong!!  We powered through to what I thought was the end only to realize that I now had to get all the self service items myself.  We had multiple carts and only one adult to steer them.  We neared the finish line and then I realized that we had never gotten a bar code for the sofa we wanted.  I knew that even with the item number I would most likely be unable to get the cashier to ring it up if I needed to say anything in Mandarin.  Ava was pretty tired by now so I left her near the check out sitting with the carts while I ran back to see if anyone could print out the barcode for me.

Of course, this is China, so I dealt with varying degrees of English with multiple employees as I tried to explain what I needed.  My Mandarin is at absolutely zero at this point so I am totally reliant on the kindness of strangers and the professionalism of their past English instructors.  Never before have I felt the power of my Teaching English as a Foreign Language Certificate in the way I have these past few weeks.  While people were helpful, it became apparent that the problem wasn’t language, but the fact that employees are specific to certain departments.  They didn’t know enough about sofas to pull anything up on the computers so they kept sending me back further into the store.  Further and further back until I was back in the sofa section at the absolute beginning of this massive IKEA.  Finally someone could help with the specific item I needed!  With the final piece of paper in hand I demanded a shortcut through the store.  There was one, of course, but by using it I ended up out in the parking lot instead of anywhere near Ava and the check out lanes.  And Ava had been waiting all this time while my 5 minute errand turned into half an hour.  When I finally made my way back to the massive pile of boxes that would eventually be every stick of furniture in our house, she confessed that she had fallen asleep.  Apparently she woke up, her head perched atop a pile of cardboard, with an entire Chinese family gawking at her.  Once they were done discussing her in Mandarin they moved on to pay for their items but not before freaking Ava out a bit.  You see, here it isn’t impolite to stare, or point, or discuss someone’s weight right in front of them and, as we have since learned, even in Shanghai little blonde children get stared at, pointed at, and discussed quite a bit.  On our next IKEA adventure some girls would take photos of Ava with their cell phones.  But this time was a first in the attention getting department and we were tired enough to find it hilarious.

After paying with Mark’s Chinese credit card, we hauled everything to the customer service desk to arrange delivery and assembly.  The process was painless and quick but, as usual, didn’t work out as planned.  There was no way to get the furniture in the next day or so, and assembly would mean waiting even longer.  Without a working cell phone there was no way to discuss it with Mark so I opted to have the furniture delivered on the earliest date and just put it all together ourselves.  How hard could that really be anyway?  I was just getting the basics—4 beds, a sofa and chairs for the living room, some shelves, a dining table.  We needed to be in the house ASAP, right?  It is this kind of decision making that sees us all later sleeping on mattresses on the floor.  But we were finished!  We treated ourselves to frozen yogurt cones for the ride home (1rmb per person!) and ate them in the cab pretending not to know that we really weren’t allowed to do that.  The driver said nothing as we munched away all the way back to the hotel.

Fast forward a day to New Year’s Eve.  We had to stay an extra night in the hotel since we wouldn’t have beds until the 1st.  Everyone was still suffering from the time change and the kids were beginning to miss home with their old beds and friends and none of this inconvenience.  We stayed at the house too long and then needed to make the trip back to the hotel.  It is 15 minutes from our house to the hotel even walking with Henry so it shouldn’t be much of a hardship, but Lucas had reached his limit and couldn’t keep it in.  He had a legendary freak out and by the time we made it back no one was in the mood for celebrating.  We ate at an American restaurant and Henry fell asleep in my lap after eating one bite of his hamburger.  Mark and I pounded our drinks (happy hour 2 for 1 that was the exact opposite of happy) and then hauled the kids up to bed.  We were all tucked in by 9:30—no countdown, no toasts, no kisses.

In the morning we regrouped.  Henry and Lucas were up at 4 am to finish Henry’s doggie bag from dinner and I started packing us up to move everything to the house.  Needless to say, the hotel was a mess now with our two rooms full of our partially unloaded suitcases.  I had stuffed them all impossibly full with no system whatsoever once I learned we each had 2 bags, not 3, and that meant no one could find clean underwear or matching socks.  I had planned to call my parents to check in and went to get my phone so that I could dial their number on Mark’s phone.  But I couldn’t find my phone.  Because I couldn’t find my bag.  Because I had left it in the restaurant the night before.  I had lost my bag with my iphone, ipod, and most importantly, all of our passports on the 3rd night in Shanghai.  Welcome to China!

Sights, Sounds, and Smells of the City

On the walk to the bus stop today

Gwen: Maggie get away from that poop!

Lucas: Is that human poop? That doesn’t look like dog poop.

Gwen: Um… hmmm. You might be right.

Lucas: Who would just poop on the sidewalk like that?

Gwen: Well the little potty training kids with the split pants just poop anywhere and lots of grown men pee outside. We have seen that, right?

Lucas: Yeah, but would a grown up just come over to these bushes and poop?

Gwen: Um, maybe a taxi driver was working all night and had to poop… Um…Hey! Let’s go put you on the bus!

My Birthday

Today was my birthday.  It started out a little bit crazy but then it got smoother.  I got to go to the fabric market with daddy.  It was fun.  Because for my birthday I was allowed to get a qi piao.  It is a traditional Chinese dress.  It was almost like the whole building is made of fabric, although, no, it didn’t collapse.  I thought it was going to be just like one store, but instead it was like the pearl market with only clothes.  You can have yours made or they have already made ones that you can buy right then.  We looked at a few stores.  The first store had tons of fabric, but they wouldn’t negotiate at all.  Then, as we were coming to the end of the market, there was one store with no one in it.  They negotiated and had really nice fabric.  It was the best store of the ones we looked at.  Did I tell you that I have to wait for a month and a week until it is done?  Yes, because they are taking a break for Chinese New Year.


Dictated to Gwen

Chopstick Dance

I miss Freerealms.  That game was all about me.  I really want to play Freerealms.  I was all about Freerealms.

On Friday, I ate pork and pork and pork and pork.  I had it for dinner at a restaurant.  I loved it.

We saw a dance at my school.  There was a Chopstick Dance.  I also did the Chopstick Dance with my class.  We did it in the morning.  I didn’t have chopsticks so I practiced with my fingers.  For the dance they gave us fancy chopsticks with red streamers.  They are light colored wood.  Just to borrow.  Not to take home.  I wore special clothes on Friday.  I wore a red and gold jacket with fancy buttons.  My pants had dragons on them.  It was silky material.  I wore it because it was a special day.  It was for Chinese New Year.  I showed my mom one move from the dance.

Dictated to Gwen