Old News

Lion Head Fountain= Fancy

Today I found some old photos of our first few days in Shanghai.  Most of these were taken around our neighborhood and will give you an idea of how it has been built to look luxurious and pricey.  It is pricey, but since I currently have multiple issues with appliances, lighting, and some sort of sewer smell creeping in through the kitchen pipes I think we can all agree that the luxury is only an illusion!  Ah, the first few days of our new house!

This is going up at the end of the street.  It isn’t the loudest construction sound, though.  Lots of my neighbors are constantly ripping out the insides of their houses or digging new basements so the hum of jack hammers is our new background music.  Yesterday Lucas commented that he wished all the workers would take a break so he could have some “peace and quiet”.  Get off his lawn!When the movers were unloading the truck the kids thought it would be fun to climb inside the shipping container.  The Chinese moving men thought this was hilarious, but questioned what kind of a parent would let her children climb up in the truck.  No one could move any boxes because we all needed to hover around the edge of the crate in case a kid fell out.

Not our house.

The houses in our compound all look very similar.  We have street names, but everyone is really identified by their house number.  I don’t even know the name of the street our house is on and it isn’t part of our mailing address.

Also not our house.

Ok, this one is actually our house.

We have a townhouse.  When we were looking for a place to live, we saw so many things in such a short period of time that I couldn’t remember many details about this specific compound or the houses we saw while we were here.  There are bigger houses, but I thought they all had three bedrooms.  We need four bedrooms, especially if there isn’t a playroom or basement.  Imagine my surprise when I discovered that one of my friends has four bedrooms in a much larger house in our compound.  She has a huge kitchen!  Her yard is 10 times bigger than mine!  She is also paying $3,000 more A MONTH.  So a townhouse it is for now.  

Here is our mailbox that fills with water when it rains.  We may or may not pay extra for this.  I have extremely clean mail.

Flowers from the flower market. I always need the purple flowers for the front of the house.

Even though we have less space than before, we are walking distance to Ava and Henry’s school.  Lucas gets dropped off near one of the gates and the kids have more freedom in the neighborhood than ever before.  They like the compound (which still feels weird to say) and love being able to ride their bikes and walk to a playground.  The back yard is small, but the dog gets more walks now.  Pluses and minuses, you know.  For now, we are trying to focus on the pluses.

My Bionicles

BIONICLES! When I was in kindergarten bionicles were a big deal, but then as I entered 1st grade everyone got less interested in bionicles. Bionicles are the perfect combination: Lego + action figures = bionicles. Bionicles are composed of snap-together pieces:

Lego created a whole storyline for bionicles. I will show it here. You don’t have to watch it cause it’s kinda long.

http://bionicle.lego.com/en-US/movies/Mistika_two_minute_movie.aspx sorry, they took out the older videos.

Here is the newer bionicle Ackar from the Glatoran series:

And here is his promo trailer.

By Request

The only happy thing in my kitchen!

I have been asked to show a few photos of the appliances I have had the misfortune of acquiring here in Shanghai.  There are so many that I had difficulty choosing which one to show you first!  One of the hardest things for me to find here has been a slow cooker.  In the United States, I used my crock pot a few times a week, especially when the weather was cold and rainy.  Since it was cold and rainy for endless stretches when we first arrived, a slow cooker would be the kind of thing that would be great to have in Shanghai.  In my search for one, I first went to my easiest and most convenient store, Carrefour. I have told you about Carrefour.  Ah, trusty Carrefour!  It is a grocery store and they have electronics and office supplies and dishes and bicycles, but they never have exactly what I need.  So I end up buying something that is close.  There is always something that gets the job done sort of, but part of my purchase there is the crushing disappointment I get once I open the package up at home and get to miss all the perfectly good things I have in a storage space in the United States.

I found the slow cookers easily in Carrefour.  They are near the rice cookers.  Sometimes I mix those things up, so I was very carefully looking at the boxes and the items out on display when the saleswoman came up beside me.  Usually these ladies don’t speak English and sometimes this makes them shy.  They have been known to rush off to look for the one person working there who has passable English so that they can figure out what in the world I am asking.  What do I want?  No one knows!  Many of them press on despite the language barrier, however, and we end up playing charades in the aisles until their faces suddenly light up and they drag me over to the item I have been describing.  They have opinions, and they aren’t afraid to share them even if I might not understand every word.  When I bought my iron, the woman insisted that I buy the foreign brand even though it was less expensive than the Chinese brand.  They had all the same features, so I kept looking at them to see why she would recommend one over the other.  Finally she told me in Mandarin that the one she kept putting back on the shelf was “Chinese” while wrinkling up her nose.  I was pretty sure they were both actually made in China, but she insisted that the Chinese one was inferior and so I gave up and bought the Phillips.  It was cheaper and she was happy.  My Chinese teacher has explained that sometimes the salespeople actually work for one brand or another and are paid to sell you specific things.  In the end, that is usually the least of my worries as I try to find the things I need here.  If they can convince me through vigorous pantomime that their brand is the best, I will part with Mark’s hard earned money.

The slow cooker was more difficult than the iron, however.  I know what I want in a slow cooker and it should be pretty easy to find here.  At least this is what I thought when I started looking for one.  I wanted a digital one with a solid top—no holes—because I wanted to turn it on and leave it.  You can’t do that with one with a knob because it will keep cooking all day.  I like them to switch to warm eventually.  And if the top has holes in it then you end up with dried out food.  The whole point of a crock pot is to keep the moisture and steam in.  If this is the first time you are hearing this then I am guessing I have just blown your mind with all that crock pot knowledge.    You are welcome.  And, yes, I know they sell them with vent holes in the United States but I would never buy that there, either.  Apparently, in China almost every appliance that looks like a slow cooker has a hole in the top.  When I finally manage to convey to the salesperson that I want one without holes, the reaction is universal.  Don’t have.  Also, you are crazy!  You need the holes!  Where will the steam go?!  They are concerned for me. I continue to insist that they do make them without holes and they continue to insist that the very idea of this is insane.  No one understands what I am talking about.  Does no one else use the crock pot?  I feel like I have fallen into some sort of twilight zone where no one understands the beauty of the slow cooker.  For shame.


When Mark and I are out one Sunday afternoon, I find a slow cooker without holes.  I do a little dance of joy until I see that it has a dial and not a digital setup.  I wander around and find one that is digital.  Score!  Wait, it has holes in the lid.  By now the saleswoman is with me and I try to explain that I want one that is a combination of the two I have found.  Digital plus no holes in the top.  Simple, yes?  Um, no.  She doesn’t understand.  She calls out to younger sales associates and urges them to practice their English with me.  They cover their faces and run away.  They shake their heads in vigorous disagreement and disappear behind the refrigerators.  She looks at me and shrugs.

Another customer comes up behind us and in perfect English says, “Perhaps I may be able to help you.”  He is an older Chinese man and the saleswoman and I look at him as if a prince has just ridden in on a white horse.  I explain what I want and he translates.  She answers and he turns to me with a serious face.  “She says they don’t make that,” he informs me.  Cue the sad trombone.

“What do you plan to use this appliance for?” he asks.  “For soup?”  I tell him sometimes, yes, sometimes soup.  But also meat.  Also other things.  “Maybe Americans and Chinese do not use this appliance the same way,” he gently suggests.  I tell him how I use my slow cooker at home, sparing no detail.  I am sure he regrets stopping to be so helpful.  “That is how this appliance works,” he tells me, “But this company doesn’t make one with no holes that is digital.  Maybe another brand?”

Shiny! Floral!

Here is where my head always explodes.  Really, China?  I can find one of these in any Target or Walmart  across the United States!  I had one of these in Australia!  They are made in China!  We poke around the store a little but by now Mark is back and he does not want to look at slow cookers.  My new friend runs off to pay for something but he sends his teenage daughter over to be my translator.  She is even less excited about the crock pots than Mark.  I ask for Mark’s opinion and he tells me just to choose one.  So I look again at the one with the digital display.  Everything is in Chinese, but I am sure I can figure it out—high, medium, low, and warm, right?  I mean, obviously!– so I take that one and we pay (289 rmb) and bring it home.

At home, I unpack the slow cooker and try to read the directions.  Sometimes they are in English in the little instruction booklet but this one is only in Chinese.  I have to ask my ayi for help.  We hunch over the book in the kitchen.  She has never used one of these before and she needs some time to look at the directions.  She isn’t sure that this is what I want.  I explain again what I want it to do and she says it will do that.  Maybe.  Sort of.  You see, the buttons are not heat settlings like I had imagined them to be when I was considering them in the store.  No, that would be easy!  They are actually settings for specific Chinese dishes!  Like congee, with or without meat.  Like some sort of Chinese soup and some other thing that not even the ayi can explain.  One button does keep the pot on warm, but the other settings are anyone’s guess when it comes to temperature and duration.  I can set the timer but I am never sure how hot the thing will get.

Basic Chinese!

The first time I use it I manage to turn chicken into charcoal and I learn that the warm setting still keeps liquid bubbling in the pot as if it were boiling on the stove.  I use parchment paper to cover the top so that the holes are no longer an issue, but this makes no difference if you have the food cooking all day at 500 degrees.  So, thus far the crock pot in China is an epic fail.  It seems that China is determined to break me of my will to cook.  Well played, China.  Well played.

Mama Liked the Circus

Wednesday night we went to the circus.  Mark’s parents were set to leave China the next afternoon, so we thought this would be an interesting way to cap things off.  My in-laws had been to the circus a few years ago in Beijing and remembered that it was in a nice theater and people had dressed up.  I prefer to err on the side of civility so I forced the kids to get “snazzy” despite their loud protests.  My father-in law chaffed a bit at the new family dress code and Mark decided that it didn’t apply to him and put on jeans.  All three children pointed this out to me as soon as he came down the stairs.

Of course, once we got to the circus there were plenty of people in their jeans and t-shirts.  The family in front of us had a handful of teenagers all in variations of the same sweatpant based outfit.  One of them sat slouched in her seat with her feet propped up on the handrail in front of her.  Outside the theater had been extremely crowded with scores of tour buses unloading.  Guides with red flags on long sticks had been directing tourists to the entrance of the performance.  Inside however, there were plenty of empty seats.  People were making use of their cameras even though there were plenty of signs reminding people that photography was strictly prohibited.  At least one of these shutterbugs continued to snap away once the performance started until a man came through section by section with an illuminated sign to reiterate the “no pictures” policy.

In Baltimore, we have taken the kids to the circus several times.  We have even seen them march the elephants down to Lexington Market and feed them lunch when the circus comes to town.  The kids loved that when we were able to go.  Who can resist a bunch of clowns surrounding elephants smashing watermelons?  The kids want to taste all the circus food.  One year Lucas lost a tooth in his funnel cake and I had to hold it in a soggy napkin until the performance was over.  Good times.

The Chinese circus isn’t really like the one we see at home.  First, there aren’t any animals.  Well, at this circus there was a horse in one act but no lions or elephants.  I actually like this.  I am not so sure circus animals are happy animals and it had started to bother me the last few times we went in Baltimore.  Roll your eyes if you must, but having fewer animals relieves me of some of the guilt I feel about my circus participation.

The stars of the Chinese circus are the human performers anyway.  Henry was enthralled from the moment the lights dimmed.  He kept letting out this astonished little “wow” every few seconds.  There were all sorts of contortionist and acrobats all set to an old Shanghai theme.  Most of the stunts were just daring enough to make me uncomfortable.  There were people being catapulted onto each other’s shoulders.  There were those guys in the big wheel running and flipping around, occasionally acting like they might fall (or maybe actually losing their balance, I am never sure).  They had eight or nine guys on motorcycles riding around in the giant metal ball.  I always tell myself that they are professionals, that they won’t turn that millimeter to the right that brings the whole thing crashing down.  This is the only way I can watch.  Apparently, in the previous night’s performance one of the motorcyclists did crash and the show had to be stopped.  I am glad I didn’t know this before we went.  That would have made me close my eyes instead of appreciating all of the people constantly floating down from the ceiling.

They had a ten minute intermission and Henry was convinced that the show was over and it was time to go home.  He lobbied hard for us to pack it up and grab a taxi.  I told him people weren’t leaving, but that they were going to the bathroom.  Mark shot me a look.  He apparently didn’t want to take Henry on a tour of the theater toilets.  Henry then decided he was dying of thirst and spent the remainder of the show vacillating between amazement over the circus and pleading his case for a bottle of water.  He survived through the final act but just barely.  Once it was over, slips of paper with fortunes written on them fell from the ceiling like confetti.  The kids scooped them up and shoved them deep in their pockets.  Lucas read a few of his and commented that some of the translations made no sense.  Some of them really were horrible interpretations of what might have been expressed in the Chinese characters.  “Time waits for no man” he read.  “See?  That makes no sense.”  Oh, Lucas.  That one actually does, kiddo.  That one makes perfect sense.

The Circus

It was one of the coolest experiences of my life.  I never thought someone could be that flexible– especially boys!  I always thought girls were more flexible than boys.  The trapeze would be the part that I could do the most of.  There was a huge crowd and my mom thought we had to dress fancy.  So she made us dress fancy!  I really like the acrobats who could do handstands while their legs were twisted up in knots.  It was one of the most exciting experiences of my life, life, life, life, LIFE!!!!!!!!!

Dictated to Gwen by Ava

I don’t want spring break to be over!

I really really really really really don’t want spring break to be over because I don’t want to go back to waking up at the crack of dawn. I’m sleeping in every day and playing and being lazy till night and then I stay up late and then I sleep in again. I learned to ride my 2-wheel bike last thursday and now I ride it every day. We went to the circus on 4/6, my favorite act was where there was a big sphere made out of iron bars and the were driving 6 motorcycles inside it. My mom just told me that the night before we went to the circus, one of the actors crashed his/her motorcycle while they were inside the ball.

Bike Riding

I like riding bikes.  My friend Kienan gave my bike to me.  I ride my bike down to the sidewalk.  I’m going to take my training wheels off soon.  I ride it down to the crosswalk.  I rode it down to the park once and played.  That’s all.

Dictated to Gwen by Henry

Century Park

Mark’s parents are visiting this week and now that the kids are out for spring break we are filling the days with some exploring.  Today my mother-in-law and I took the kids for a stroll through Century Park while Mark and his dad took care of some work things.  Century Park is walking distance from our house, but I will admit that I have never even gotten close to the gates until today.  When the weather is pitiful, the last thing on my mind is walking through a park especially when it only means coming home with wet shoes.  But today the weather was gorgeous so grandmom scored some free tickets from the hotel (thanks again, Kerry Pudong!) and we went for a walk.  From the beginning Lucas had only one singular purpose and that was to find and commandeer a paddle boat.  I had heard that the park had paddle boats, but I wasn’t all that interested in putting all three children on a boat in the middle of the meandering river.  Still, Lucas was determined.  He started his nagging from the moment we entered the gate and was relentless until the very end.  We didn’t ride the paddle boats, mainly because there weren’t any to be found, but we did manage to walk around a small section of the park and for once I remembered to bring the nice camera! 

Century Park is one of the largest in Shanghai and it was a big draw for us when we decided to move to this side of the river.  Unfortunately, we had thought we could bring the dog into the park and that it would be a great place for running her off the leash.  Alas, it is not that kind of park.  I think dogs are not even allowed in despite the fact that one of our neighbors allegedly marches in with his dog all the time.  His dog is small, and I think he has been lucky so far.  Maggie would most certainly cause a commotion if we tried to sneak her in. 

Henry was angling for a playground, but there wasn’t one in the area we explored today.  The park is massive and I am sure on future trips we will discover that there is much more to see and do.  Later in the day one of Ava’s friends told us that there is most certainly a playground in Century Park.  I swear I wasn’t trying to trick my children when I told them there wasn’t one!

We were there during some sort of school trip because there were tons of school kids in their uniforms.  Those kids were keen to practice their English with us through the age old art of yelling random phrases at unsuspecting people.  We were greeted with not only “hello” today, but also with “good afternoon” and “nice to meet you”.  All of these required the same amount of interaction.  My mother-in-law was sure they were a sports team, but there were way too many of them for that.  Do Chinese kids have school on Saturday?  Would they have a school trip right before the upcoming holiday?  Not sure.  So many things to check on in the next few days!  We did see plenty of people renting bicycles built for two (and three, apparently, often filled with careening members of the previously mentioned school group), and lots of these crazy pedal contraptions that look like rickshaws.  Check out this kid riding in the back with his bubble gun. 

The weather also brought out a few groups for wedding photos.  We saw these two couples in multiple places in the park.  Today wasn’t the wedding, but just a photo day for these guys, apparently. 

We managed to trick grandmom into buying bubbles AND ice cream.  The initial plan was to browse, but once I wavered a bit the kids smelled opportunity.  It didn’t take long to have them all covered in chocolate and attacking unsuspecting people with their bubble arsenal.  You know that if there is ice cream then we will be back.