Back In China

I like being back in China.  But when I got home I felt like I wanted to go back on vacation.  Then I could play video games.  The boat was my favorite part of vacation because we could play video games all day.  I like being on the boat just because it is fun and we swim, go to the beach, and go snorkeling.  I saw a sunken ship.  I saw fish and two barracudas.

Dictated to Gwen by Henry 

How Not to Buy a Blender

The blender in question

Oh, more tales of woe from the Shanghai kitchen!  I mentioned in my post about the crockpot that I was having difficulty finding small kitchen appliances here in China.  Either things are cheaply made, or crazy expensive, or just not available.  And yes, it is not lost on me that all of the things at my old local Target were actually made in China.  My recent trip home reinforced the irony of living in the country of origin for so many cheap products but being unable to find them here in Shanghai.  Hilarious, I know.  I am trying to be judicious in my selections when it come to the kitchen.  There isn’t much room in the tiny Shanghai kitchen and I don’t have much storage space in the form of closets here either.  The things I buy need to be worth the space they take up on the kitchen counter.

I had been burned before, so when I decided to purchase a blender, I was determined not to make the same mistake.  I would buy the name brand thing this time—no crazy Chinese company for me!—and I would be sure I was buying something that would get the job done.  This time I was even contemplating making a move to the expensive store with the imported appliances.  One of the other students in my Chinese cooking class had told me about a store that was a short cab ride away where they had insanely overpriced name brand small appliances.  He had suffered with a shoddy food processor, and had decided it wasn’t worth the hassle to spend the time and energy staking out all the local Chinese stores for miracles.  He confessed to having been knowingly robbed by the shopkeeper, but claimed the prices were worth it to eliminate the aggravation factor alone.  I was set on going that route myself when fate intervened.

Poor Ava decided she could no longer live without breakfast smoothies and she was begging for a blender to help remedy the situation.  Mark needed to go to the hardware store so Ava and I tagged along.  This hardware store isn’t like most of the places in Shanghai where Mark prefers to shop. He was planning on going to the equivalent of Home Depot.  A Chinese big box store, if you will, instead of his usual hole in the wall specialty places where they only sell wheels, or rubber tubing, or specific sizes of screws.  On top of this massive hardware store there is an equally massive store selling appliances.  Mark assured me they had blenders–he claimed to have even seen a food processor–and, since I only needed this blender to make smoothies, I figured it was worth a shot.  We browsed the aisles accompanied by an eager Chinese saleswoman.  She and her colleagues were keen to talk to Ava and to tell me how pretty she was.  They were happy to show us the blenders and to make recommendations about quality and style.  At least that is what I thought they were doing since we were all trying to make ourselves understood in Mandarin.  I could have been completely off base.  They certainly seemed to be discussing the different blenders.  We all agreed on which blender would be the best.  One was most certainly the highest quality—a name brand number with a glass container.  I indicated that I wanted to buy the blender and that’s when things got confusing.

Buy it?  The salesladies were sorry, but I couldn’t buy that blender.  After all that discussion it turned out that there were only two blenders available for purchase.  Two out of at least twenty on display!  They were made by some random Chinese company, and, while they looked sturdy enough, I had my doubts.  So now the choice was only between the glass container or the plastic.  Which one would I prefer?  The instruction manual was completely in Chinese as were the indicators—only three speeds, mind you—on the dial.  The saleswoman pointed me toward the one with the glass container.  It was “very good”.  The plastic one?  Only “so so”.  I reluctantly bought the glass one.  I only needed it for smoothies, surely this thing could handle a few frozen banana slices, right?

This could say anything, really

Wrong.  When I went to make Ava a smoothie the next morning, the blender was incapable of grinding up even the smallest morsel of frozen anything.  Even paper thin frozen banana slices proved to be too much.  I tried the other settings.  I violently shook the container.  I stirred in between each futile whir of the blades.  The entire kitchen shook with the force of the blender’s motor, but every attempt produced the same result—yogurt with fruit chunks.  Any dreams of making pina coladas with this blender died as I tried and tried again.  There was no way this thing could handle ice cubes.  And there was a curious smell–burning plastic, maybe?—accompanying every flick of the dial.

This may very well say “Not an actual blender”

Chinese blender?  Epic fail.  Sigh.


One of the things that found most difficult this summer was the feeling that no place was really home.  We went back to Baltimore with an offer on the house and every intention of finishing the details of the sale in the following weeks.  We hadn’t seen the house since we left in December but had been assured it looked great and was showing well.  We weren’t thrilled with the offer, but we wanted to be done with the stress and worry of having an empty house on the other side of the world.  Well, I wanted to be finished with the stress.  Mark would have been content to wait a bit longer or to hold on to the house indefinitely.  After we agreed on the terms of the sale, the soon-to-be new owners wanted to get into the house early.  A few weeks early, before the loan was approved and well before the closing.  We didn’t want to do this, and were getting plenty of pressure to just relax and go ahead with things.  You can guess how that turned out.  No deal.  No sale.  Still own the Baltimore house.

After that disappointment, I went by the house to see how it looked.  I made the mistake of bringing the kids, thinking they would like to see the house again.  I had no idea the place would be dirty, with an overgrown yard that resembled a jungle.  When we opened the door, we were slapped in the face by the overpowering scent of empty old house.  Not the most pleasant way to come home.  All three children burst into tears because their house looked abandoned, unloved, and forgotten.  It made me sad, but more than that I was angry.  No wonder no one wanted to buy the house!  After seeing the shape our house was in after a few months unoccupied, I didn’t want to buy it either.

Our storage space wasn’t in much better shape.  It had been unloaded by the movers and had been packed from front to back as tightly as possible.  When I pulled up the metal door there was no way to move inside the space– the boxes and furniture were stacked all the way to the ceiling.  Some of the boxes were already starting to collapse.  This wasn’t surprising considering a few pieces of heavy furniture had been wedged on top of everything.  My brother helped me pull everything out and rearrange things into a larger space.  Surprisingly, not much seemed to be broken, but once again it was days of looking at things I used to love and knowing they were just going to be sitting unappreciated for who knows how long.

So the summer was all about letting go.  Letting go of my pretty house, letting go of all the possessions that used to make that house feel like a home, and letting go of the expectation that those things would be in pristine condition when we eventually return to the US.  In a way seeing things in their inevitable decline was good.  I was less disappointed when we came back to Shanghai and I was once again in my less than perfect house and trying to cook in my tiny kitchen. Not that the Baltimore house is perfect, but now the grass is a little less green, I suppose.  So here’s to being back in Shanghai and making another go of it, trying out some more new things, and plodding along with my Mandarin.  Here’s to the next few months of adapting and changing and rolling with the punches.  Here’s to making this work.


By the end of our vacation, we were all a little ready to get back “home”.  For the kids this was apparently Shanghai.  They started moaning and groaning about missing the dog, their friends, and their bikes with a few weeks left in the United States.  I was less sure about heading back to China.  The summer was more stressful than I had anticipated, and when I got that feeling that I sometimes get on vacation—the one where I am missing my own bed–I realized that it wasn’t exactly the same.  I wasn’t really missing Shanghai. I am still not in love with China, and I was dreading the re-entry.

I started the trip home with the kids just hoping to make it back to Shanghai without killing any of them.  The long break had left us all a little tired of each other and the bickering was difficult to manage.  We were rushed at the airport in Baltimore, but I had been holding out a sliver of hope that we might be upgraded to business class for the 14-hour leg of the journey.  The ticketing agent said that would be unlikely, but that I should wait until we got to the gate in Newark to ask there.  Then she shooed us away and we hustled through security.

Waiting for the flight to leave Newark felt a lot like waiting to leave Shanghai.  The gate was full of Chinese people.  An older Chinese woman took an interest in Henry and said something to him in Mandarin as we sat down.  Her hands embarrassedly fluttered up to cover her mouth when she remembered where we were and that he most likely wouldn’t understand her.  But Henry did understand her.  He was shy, but Lucas and Ava made up for that.  Once everyone knew the kids spoke a little Mandarin, it was just like being back in China.  Our business was everyone’s business.  The woman disapproved of Henry’s video games, and covered his iPad screen with her hands.  She got out snacks and offered pumpkin seeds to the kids.  Henry happily accepted a handful and munched on them as we waited.  I was beginning to remember some of the things about Shanghai that were ok.  Having a trio of cute blonde ambassadors certainly didn’t hurt.  We got upgrades and we all did a little dance.  We even saw some neighbors from our compound and the kids excitedly shared tales of their summer adventures.  Maybe going back to Shanghai was going to be fine after all.

The flight was reasonable.  The upgrades made it easy for the kids to sleep.  There were ice cream sundaes!  Lucas watched a million movies!  The flight attendants were helpful!  What was usually the most difficult part of the journey was–dare I say it? —almost easy.  It looked like we were going to have a trouble free time getting back to Shanghai.  Oh, China.  Why was I worried?

We were about two hours away from the Shanghai airport when the pilot made an announcement.  There was a typhoon in Shanghai and we were being diverted to Beijing.  A typhoon?!  Well played, China.  Well played.  The details were sketchy, but they would let us know more once we landed.  The airline would put us up in a hotel and they would most likely fly us to Shanghai in the early morning.

The next few hours included plenty of general craziness, multiple shuttle and bus rides, and confusion.  I remembered some of the things I don’t like about China, like all the pushing and shoving it takes to get on those buses and shuttles and the refusal to accept the concept of personal space.   The Chinese might love my kids, but they think nothing of separating them from me in a crowd.  We were only allowed to bring our carry on luggage with us.  The checked things stayed on the plane. Each kid had a rolling suitcase and I was lucky to get us all on and off the million escalators in one piece with the wall of bodies both in front of and behind us.  My Chinese cell phone had died during the summer and was useless without the charger so I had packed it thinking I wouldn’t need it. I had put it in one of the checked bags that would now be spending the night at the airport.  My American cell phone clicked into expensive mode as I tried to get in touch with Mark to explain the details.

The airline was nice enough to provide dinner, but because we had had nothing since the midflight snack we all got hungry well before the buffet would open at 6pm.  I was also skeptical that everyone from the entire flight could be reasonably fed in the one hour and thirty minutes the hotel restaurant had blocked out for us.  If the earlier mad rush of people crushing each other to secure a coveted seat on one of the buses was any indication, dinner would be tricky to navigate without injury.  I didn’t want to add an emergency room visit to our brief time in Beijing so I opted to take the kids down early and paid the equivalent of $100 for 4 bowls of minestrone soup, 1 small grilled cheese sandwich, 1 club sandwich, and 4 drinks.  It was not delicious.  We were all in bed by 6:30.

We ended up in a reasonable hotel, but in two rooms that were too far apart for my liking.  I sternly told the boys that they were not to leave their room until I came to get them in the morning.  As anyone could have predicted, this resulted in Henry yelling in the hallway a little after midnight having gone out to “walk around”.  He had, of course, locked himself out of his room.  Never in my life have I put on a pair of pants so quickly.  I was still buttoning as I burst into the hall hoping to keep Henry from boarding some random elevator.  This set us up nicely for the 1am wake up call and the 2am bus ride (AGAIN!) back to the airport.  They had us in the air by 5am.

But the fun wasn’t over yet.  We landed, but had no gate.  Customs didn’t want to let us off the plane, convinced the time we had spent navigating things in Beijing was not satisfactory.  Admittedly, our checked luggage hadn’t gone through customs, but at this point no one wanted to deal with the headache of processing us all again.  We sat down and stood back up no less than five times.  People milled about.  A Chinese woman made herself at home on my armrest rather than move the 8 steps back to her own seat.  Two hours later we were finally let off the plane and into the terminal where we all continued to move as if we were a swarm of bees.  They changed the baggage claim carousel twice and each time everyone from the flight moved like a giant amoeba, stepping on toes and pressing up against each other.   Then we all jammed ourselves around the conveyor belt and slung our bags into fellow passengers’ legs and torsos.   Finally, after a sweaty taxi ride, we were back at Team Erickson’s Shanghai outpost.  And I was actually just a little bit happy to be home.