The Help

Ok, here comes the post where you all get very tired of hearing about how “horrible” it can be to live in China.  This is the post where you all throw your hands in the air and tell me to shut up about how difficult things are because this is where I start to tell you all about the ayi.  What is an ayi, you ask?  Well, be prepared to be astounded, because in Shanghai almost every expat has one and I am embarrassed that this includes me. One thing that I was hoping to love was the presence of lots of household help.  I haven’t written before about how much support people can have here for relatively little money, but it is not uncommon for families to have people to drive them around, watch their children, and clean their houses.  We don’t have a driver.  We don’t have a nanny.  But I do have an ayi. It pains me to say it, but I have a maid.  Three days a week, for six hours a day.  And I hate it.

One of the supposed perks of living in China is the availability of cheap domestic help and an ayi is basically a household helper.   It is assumed that as an expat family we would have one to help with the chores and children.  When I was touring schools one of the admissions people had even casually mentioned that my plan to wait to start working until the kids were settled was a good one because it would allow me to get my ayi “all trained” in the way I like things done before I left her in charge of the house.  This made me uncomfortable.  After all, if I have someone doing the house stuff, then what would I do all day?  Mark suggested that I get together with my friends to complain about how much I hate Shanghai.  That is what the other ladies around town do, apparently.  Very funny.  Some families have the ayi cook and clean and run all of the errands.   Some ayis do the shopping and pay the bills and pick the kids up from school.  If I was working this would be a dream, provided you find someone who works well with your family.  Some people have the ayi live with them 6 days a week and the larger expat houses have a small room off the kitchen for the ayi to sleep in.  Our house doesn’t have this, but really, we don’t need to have someone here at night.  Frankly, having someone here during the day is sometimes too much for me.

Our first ayi came 5 days a week from 8:30am to 2pm.  That was more than I had planned on, but that is how things worked out.  We were lucky in that the parent liaison at Henry and Ava’s school gave us the ayi’s number on our first day in Shanghai.  Helen had worked for another family and once they left China she needed to find another job.  We interviewed her and thought it might work so she started coming to our house the next week.  Helen speaks English–a big plus for me.  This is unusual, and it made her more expensive.  Of course, when I say expensive, it is all relative.  My rent here is expensive by any standards, but the ayi’s salary is really far from expensive.  I paid Helen 25rmb an hour.  That feels like robbery to me, but some people pay their ayi 15rmb per hour.  Basically, she was paid $4 an hour.  I will give you a second to recover from that.  Take your time.

I got used to having the ayi to help me with things when my lack of Chinese kept me from understanding something.  She could call people on the phone for me and babysit the kids.  She was able to help Ava with her Mandarin homework and to read labels to me to make sure I bought the right things. She started coming on Sundays so that Mark and I could go out without the kids.  It wasn’t perfect, but it was working.   Of course, this all came to an end when she took another job.  She opted to take a full time live-in position and recommended a friend of hers to take over.  A friend who speaks absolutely no English!  I said we’d try it and cut back to three days a week.  From the first day, we have had difficulty, um, communicating.  We pantomime and try to work things out, but often I will think we have established something only to find out she had no understanding of what I wanted.  It is frustrating.

The laundry is always a bone of contention. I have some pretty specific ideas about how laundry should be done, and these are impossible to convey without a common language.  Add to this the teeny tiny washer and dryer which happen to be located in the already cramped kitchen and you have a recipe for laundry disaster.  Things stay wet too long and stains don’t come out.  The ayi also puts the laundry away, but since we have mountains and mountains of children’s clothing here at all times she scrambles to finish all of it and then has to decide where she thinks things might belong.  I know this is supposed to be helpful.  I am sure that this is supposed to lessen stress for me and free up more time for other things, but it really only adds to the confusion in the house. I really don’t need someone to be here so much.  I hate having an extra person in the house and I hate feeling like I am being lazy as someone else scurries around frantically cleaning.  It has been a long time since I have had anyone to clean my house, and as much as I hate cleaning toilets, it is because I hate to have someone in my business.  I like knowing where everything is in my house, and please don’t tell anyone, but I like doing laundry.  I like organizing things.  It turns out I don’t like having it done for me.

I know how this sounds.  I should be appreciative of the extra help.  I should be loving all this cheap labor.  But I’m not.  I have heard horror stories about how other people treat their ayis.  There are “power struggles,” issues with childcare, and the obvious thievery that comes with paying someone so little and then putting them in charge of your house, sometimes even giving them a key.  Right now this isn’t helpful—it is more stressful.  The ayi is nice.  She is reliable.  She does a pretty good job cleaning.  But I don’t really need an ayi.

Not Really A Bargain

When we used to travel before kids, I loved going to the markets and bargaining for souvenirs.  It was fun to be able to spar with someone over the price of an item, especially if I walked away thinking I was getting a good deal.  Most of the places we were visiting had a very favorable exchange rate when we were running around with US dollars so, let’s be honest here, even if someone was charging me way above market value for something I was still spending very little money.  It wasn’t about my budget anyway; it was about the experience.

Mark was the worst at bargaining.  He didn’t like to haggle with people and he didn’t like to feel as if he was taking advantage.  When someone offered him a handmade item or some local treasure, he couldn’t stand to argue about the worth of the thing.  This used to infuriate me because he would make it that much more difficult for me to convince people to sell me things for cheap.  Traveling in Vietnam, he made friends with some of the local girls who sold all sorts of trinkets.  Once he knew their names there was no way he could bargain with them anymore.  Since I was laid up with a horrible case of food poisoning, he spent an entire afternoon paying full price for everything.  When I recovered enough to be back at the market for our last shopping trip before heading home, there was not a soul who would give me a deal on anything.  “Your husband bought these same things yesterday,” they all told me, “and he paid full price.”  Curse you, Mark!

Here in China things have changed dramatically.  Now that we have been here a little while I have come to dislike bargaining.  It really does lose something when you need to haggle over everything.  I was expecting it in the markets, but I have since learned that in China everything is negotiable.  When we were looking for housing the real estate agent told us that he would negotiate the price and any extra things we wanted.  You ask for the moon and then you settle for a little less.  The same goes for all sorts of other things as well.  When I signed up for my language course, they presented me with the paperwork and it didn’t occur to me to bargain.  When I got home Mark told me that it was expected.  At the language school?!  Yep.  I could have gotten a better deal if I had asked for one.

Mark has become a champion negotiator after his time in China.  When we go to the fakes market, he is all business.  The key, apparently, is walking away.  This works well when he is alone, but if the kids are with us this is less effective.  They haven’t figured out that they should at least pretend not to care.  When they see something that they like they beg and plead.  This does not help negotiations.  You are supposed to start ridiculously low, but the children find this unfair and will frequently side with the seller and help to drive the price up.  When shopping on their own they will often pull out all their money so that the seller can see exactly how much they have to spend.  These things drive Mark crazy but we have begun to use it to our advantage with a sort of good cop/bad cop routine.  While the kids beg for some horrible plastic toy, Mark will walk away, disgusted.  I shrug and defer to him.  Who am I to cross my domineering husband?  Everyone knows Mark wears the pants.  Well, that’s what they think in the market anyway.  Surprisingly, people will chase after us and give us our final price.  Score!  I know you will all be jealous when you find out how little we paid for all our fancy laser pointers and spinning plastic light up tops.  I have a house full of chopstick sets, off brand Nerf guns, and remote control helicopters all purchased at rock bottom prices.  You should all be very jealous indeed.

Next Year

Next year I am going to change schools because we think Yew Chung isn’t the right fit for me.  So I am going to go to SAS which I hope will be a better fit for me.  Just to let you know, I’m not really lovin’ YCIS.  It is sort of an ok school, but it does a lot of work that I’m not really used to.  Everybody thinks that the work I do is easy but for me it is not.  I would be fine if I had to stay there but it just isn’t really the right place for me.

I will miss my friends there and they have already said they will miss me, but still, I have to do what is right for me.  I can have play dates and sleepovers whenever I want, but for school I have to do what is best for me, not what is best for everyone else.

I hope that SAS will be a better fit, but if it isn’t… there are always other schools!


Dictated to Gwen by Ava

Oriental Land!

A name like that just screams good times, doesn’t it?  When one of Mark’s colleagues suggested a trip to Oriental Land I will admit I was skeptical.  What kind of place lets people call it “oriental land”?  The website promised carnival rides and laser tag, an actual aircraft carrier, and a giant bubble that lets you walk on water.   Hmmm…  so many possibilities.  We started out Sunday morning by heading to Mark’s office.  Chris was spearheading the trip and had generously worked out transportation so that we could all ride together for the hour long trip.  All of Mark’s colleagues came with us—they are only an office of four—and Lilly brought her kids so the van was full.  It was raining, unfortunately, but Oriental Land promised lots of indoor activities.  Rain or no rain we were still going.

Welcome to Oriental Land!

Once inside we rented two of those awesome multi-seater bikes to tool around the park.  The rain had stopped and the day was starting to heat up.  Mark was unlucky and ended up in the bike with all the kids.  This didn’t stop them from racing the bike full of adults, though, and any time we got in the bikes there was mayhem and danger.  At one point Chris was yelling “Make way!  Make way!” in Chinese as we barreled down a hill trying to catch and pass the children.  There was a fair amount of taunting and cheating going on and unsuspecting groups of people along the road kept having to scatter to avoid us.  Mark later commented that in the United States there would have been rules against our bike races in the park.  Thanks, China!  We love how you throw caution to the wind when it comes to bodily harm.

We found the aircraft carrier and the water bubble thing.  The actual bubble wasn’t there, but they had these inflatable tubes instead.  The kids didn’t seem to care that the tubes looked way less exciting than the photos from the website.

We checked out the rides and Henry was devastated to discover that he wasn’t tall enough to ride the giant swings.  The fit abruptly ended when he learned that he was tall enough for many of the other rides—rides that involved shooting.  He shot clowns and penguins and various other defenseless things until we decided to move on.

Henry killed all of these guys.

Probably the highlight of Oriental Land for the kids was laser tag.  Lucas has played laser tag a few times, but my other kids haven’t.  Henry has, of course, been dying to play and was thrilled when we pulled up to the laser tag “training ground” and they said there was no age requirement.  Adults could play on a course with more obstacles, but kids would have to play in a more open area.  Surprisingly this didn’t cause any disappointment and they all gladly suited up to run around and shoot each other.  Mark and Chris bravely agreed to participate while the ladies “supervised”.  Somehow the game became adults against kids and the rule of 3 lives maximum was quickly forgotten as the kids ran to the guy in charge of the equipment and begged for more chances.  They played until they were covered in dirt and completely sweaty.

Chris is forced to surrender!

Along the way I managed to end up in the bike with Mark and the kids.  This made us the blondest, whitest bicycle that Oriental Land had ever seen.  People had been staring the entire time we were at the park, but now they started calling out.  “Hello!” random groups would shout at us as we drove by.  One teenager pointed at us and said, “Cool!” as we passed.  People took photos.  We were one of the best attractions at Oriental Land.  Lilly’s daughter was riding with us and she couldn’t get over the attention we were receiving.  “Who was that?” she would ask when someone called out to us.  She was always surprised that they were complete strangers.  Her mother is Chinese, so she gets less of the staring and pointing.  “I couldn’t live this way!” she eventually blurted out.  She was tired of being part of our rock star celebrity group.

We don’t know this guy.

We ate lunch at a restaurant not far from the park.  It was Chris’ recommendation, and we were able to sit by the water and have some Chinese food.  When we arrived, there was the usual waving, pointing, and staring.  Someone was yelling at us from across the water.  Everyone was convinced that people were saying “Henry”.  No, no, I insisted.  After all, I had just spent a good deal of time explaining about how all those friendly folks were just random people.  Then I looked across the little river and saw the family of one of Henry’s classmates!  We really did know those people!

Shanghai– the world’s largest small town

After buying some fancy lollipops, we all piled back in the van sticky, sweaty, and tired.  The kids had loved the trip even though we really saw only a fraction of what Oriental Land had to offer.  Not sure if we will make it back, but if we ever need a good dose of water sports combined with shooting stuff, now we know where to go.

Welcome to Erickson Pharmacy

Ever since I went on the hospital tour, I have been doing everything possible to avoid taking anyone to the doctor.  We have been fairly lucky—no emergencies, yet—and the illnesses around here have been minor.  The kids have had colds, of course, and Lucas had an asthma flare up that made me realize that we didn’t bring enough of his medicine.  That problem was solved with a few phone calls home, grandparent involvement, and a fortuitous trip to the US by one of Mark’s colleagues.

Our relative good health was bound to end, though.  It was only a matter of time before we would have to venture out and try one of the pediatricians here in Shanghai.  Our first incident occurred when Lucas came downstairs after his bath and announced that he had chicken pox.  All of the kids have been vaccinated so this would be highly improbable, but the bumps all over his chest did look suspiciously like the pox.  They were spreading, and a quick glance at Google images had me convinced that he might be right.  There had been a recent note from one of the schools about students coming down with chicken pox, so when Henry and Ava also had the red bumps, I panicked and called our pediatrician in Baltimore.  With the time difference, I was lucky enough to be able to reach him during his morning call time and catch him before he left for the office.  How great is that, by the way, that you can call him in the morning to chat before he goes to work?

Dr. Bodnar was extremely patient with me as he explained that there was no way we could have chicken pox.  Highly improbable.  When I pressed for a diagnosis he told me that he couldn’t say without seeing them and, obviously, that wasn’t going to happen.  We would need to see someone here.  Erg.  So off we went in the morning to a new pediatrician.

The office visit was uneventful, really.  The pediatrician was fine and the kids liked her though I missed home and the ease of our old routine.  They were able to fit all three kids in at the same time, for better or worse, and they ruled out chicken pox pretty quickly.  It turned out the kids had hot tub folliculitus.  In other words, we had caught something from bacteria in the clubhouse hot tub.  Gross!  Even worse, we had invited a friend to the pool and she had the same rash.  Who wants a play date with the Ericksons?  Our pool has bacteria!  Come on over!

They gave us some antibiotic cream which we never used since it all cleared up in a matter of days.  Even more exciting, the doctor told me that they keep Lucas’ asthma medicine in stock.  Hooray!  Would we like some?  Of course we would!  Here is where China is vastly different from home.  The pharmacy is located in the doctor’s office.  This is lucky because it is usually in the main part of the hospital and this would have been very hard to navigate without reasonable spoken Mandarin.  The doctor wrote the prescriptions and then they were filled one desk over.  You wait for them to check you out and to pay any fees and then you get your medicine.  Because few things are available over the counter, people will stock up whenever they go to the doctor on things like pain relievers and cold medicine.

Since we were stocking up, I had several boxes to pick up at the pharmacy counter.  Once I got there the pharmacist had a lengthy discussion with me about how to mix the medicine before Lucas used it.  What?  Mix it?  I didn’t understand.  He explained that none of it was mixed so I would need to measure the saline and then the medicine and then put it in the nebulizer.  Ok… I am not at all comfortable with that, but if this is the way things work then I can roll with it.  Apparently, I am the pharmacist’s assistant!  He has an awful lot of faith in me if he is just going to let me mix things at home, but apparently his job is only to hand me the boxes.  The doctor had made it seem so straightforward.  She hadn’t mentioned that I needed to do more than just open the package.

The same thing happened when Henry had to go back to the doctor the next week for a possible ear infection.  An ear infection that I didn’t believe he had because sometimes I am an awesome mother.  Honestly, he had no fever and he was skipping around and jumping in the air and only occasionally complaining that his ear sort of hurt.  So off we went again and once again I stood befuddled at the pharmacy counter.  I had heard that in China they preferred IV antibiotics and that had made me wary of taking the kids in for things like an ear infection.  The pediatrician thought this was funny.  Of course they had oral antibiotics!  We would start with our old friend amoxicillin!  She only had capsules, but that would work out fine!

Cut to the pharmacy again where I stood rereading the directions on the box of antibiotic capsules.  Lucky I had read them at all since I thought I was just going to be giving Henry a capsule or two every so often.  The directions told me to mix the contents of two capsules with 20 ml of water and to give Henry 14 ml twice a day.  What?  20 ml to mix but 14 ml per dose?  Why didn’t the pharmacist just mix the damn stuff for me?  The pediatrician had said we could mix it with juice or something to get him to take the capsules, but the box said I needed to mix it before I even tried to make it edible.  I asked the pharmacist and he blinked at me several times before answering.  Since Henry didn’t weigh enough to just take two full capsules, I needed to open the capsules and mix their contents with liquid and then take out the correct dosage for his weight.  His job really was just to hand me the boxes!  He even handed me a bottle with the label “simple syrup” on it and instructed me that I could use this to make the medicine taste better.  Sure thing, don’t worry about me!  No, no, you just sit there and finish your tea!  I can do all this “pharmacy” stuff when I get home!

So for the past few days I have been attempting to mix a stiff cocktail of antibiotic goodness for Mr. Doodle.  I have begun mixing it with chocolate syrup but I have no idea if the doses I am giving him are right.  I assume they are close enough because he has stopped complaining about his ear.  Just wait until I get a chance to work my magic on Lucas!  Who knew I was such a good pharmacist?

Safety Lesson

Ava had another performance this week for school and the boys and I dutifully attended.  This event was for Chinese week and it was similar to her violin performance in that we all got a good strong dose of how not to act in a theater from the rest of the audience.  The acoustics were bad so it was difficult to hear the kids and the stage was impossible to see.  We were near the back and once Ava’s part was over we fled the auditorium.  I felt bad leaving while the rest of the performance was going on, but I was pretty sure I was going to end up saying something nasty to another parent if we stayed.  There was so much talking and video game playing and general jackassery that I was pretty angry by the time we started looking for a taxi.

The taxi ride to the performance had been eventful only because the driver had difficulty finding the place.  It was the other campus of Ava’s school, and I am not familiar enough with the location to help with directions.  The driver kept telling me that the address on the tickets and the address on my map were not the same.  The kids bounced around in the back of the taxi and I alternated between trying to help the driver and yelling at the kids.

The ride home started out fine.  We walked a bit to find an empty taxi, but the driver didn’t complain about the short distance or the small fare we would be paying.  I had given him a false impression of competence with my first few initial sentences in Chinese and he tried to talk to me the entire ride.  I understood a little of what he was saying so it was a good chance to work on my Mandarin.  We hit a snag a few minutes from home.  Shanghai traffic is always crazy and there was an accident up ahead.  We had to slow down to creep through the intersection.

We have seen a few accidents here since arriving in December.  Most of these are minor.  They are little dents and scratches.  People will be out of their cars, yelling at each other about the damage.  Just yesterday I saw a motorcycle and a bike that had collided in an intersection.  Both vehicles were on their sides, but the people were standing up, unhurt.  They were fighting with each other and examining the bikes as a crowd gathered around them.

But this accident was different.  There was a police car with its lights on and several cars at curious angles in the intersection.  The cars didn’t look that bad, but it was dark and it was hard to see everything clearly.  Once we got closer we saw the man in the street.  He had been riding a moped and the car had hit him hard enough to knock his shoes off.  He was on his stomach with his arms and legs splayed out but no one was helping him or even looking at him.  His bike lay on its side a few feet away.  At first I thought that he was just badly injured, but the angles of his arms and legs combined with the lack of attention he was getting made me pretty certain.  I think he was dead.

The kids had their faces pressed against the window as we passed the scene.  The cab driver and I both let out noises of shock and surprise—me in English and him in Chinese.  “Is that guy dead?” Lucas asked.  I hesitated.   “Maybe,” I told him.  The driver let out a nervous giggle and began talking to us in rapid Chinese.  Lucas didn’t like the giggling even though he is prone to that reaction himself.  “That guy might be dead and he is laughing?!  What is he saying?”  I had no idea, but I defended the laughing.  It wasn’t mean spirited laughter, it was the laughter that comes with a surprise like a dead body in the middle of the street.

We couldn’t see any blood.  I knew I was supposed to use this as a moment to reinforce what we had been telling the kids about how dangerous it can be to cross the street.  I knew I was supposed to reiterate all the things we had said about bike safety but I couldn’t muster much wisdom up at that moment.  I was too busy trying to control my shaking.