Frustration. It is a common element in my dealings here in China. It isn’t surprising, really. I speak very little Chinese. I can’t read characters. I spend my time muddling through. This requires me to be patient—patient with my children, patient with my neighbors, patient with myself. But it turns out I am not a patient person. I have limited patience especially in the face of constant frustration. Which brings me to my newest Shanghai emotion: impotent rage.
Oh yes, the worst kind of anger is the kind you can do nothing to remedy. In an ideal world, I would be able to fix the thing that is driving me crazy, but China is hardly an ideal world—at least not for me. Here I can’t always change the thing that is causing me to get angry. So I have two choices: let it all out in a fantastic show of emotion or tamp it down and try to contain it. Out in public I usually choose to keep the anger in. While I am sure many Shanghainese would love for me to pitch a screaming stomping fit, my pride keeps me from doing this. Most of the time. At least some of the time. But the anger containment isn’t working so well, either.
My body is notorious for responding to stress that my brain thinks we have well under control. The results are always spectacular. Like the time my neck refused to work while I waited to see if I had been accepted to graduate school, for example. While my sister found it hilarious that I needed to hold my head up using my hands as a brace, it wasn’t very convenient. The result of my new anger management issues here in Shanghai is equally debilitating. I have started to get migraine headaches.
At first I thought it was the pollution or the fact that I am probably not drinking enough of our frequently delivered bottled water, but now I am beginning to see the connections. I start to get frustrated—about the crowds, or not being able to get a taxi when I need one, or about something simple taking all day—and I can feel the headache starting. If I have had a few frustrating days in a row then there will be no escaping the migraine. I try to do things to alleviate the stress. But China is the stress. And here even my stress relievers can be stressful. You know when Bruce Banner is about to turn into the Hulk? That is me in Shanghai. Which means summer vacation can’t come fast enough.
We all knew it might happen eventually… Team Erickson has become reluctant vegetarians. Food safety has always been a bit of an issue here for us, but lately it has gotten too difficult to ignore. We moved here concerned about the effects of pollution on ourselves and the kids, but that was all hypothetical. I really thought our main food issue would be strange, new, exotic food. Would the kids like it? Would they even taste it? Would I ever get over my street food anxieties? (The answer to that last question is a predictable “no.”) I had not thought about the availability of safe, reasonably healthy, affordable food on a daily basis. There is always some sort of food scare here and we laughed it off initially. People are injecting sugar water into the strawberries? Sure they are. There is some problem with the green bean supply? Yawn. Scammers are making fake eggs using chemicals instead of chickens? Highly implausible. Still, those stories began to weigh on me. I have talked before about my shopping difficulties. That hasn’t changed much. I am still pounding the pavement in search of dinner ingredients. Only now I have found that there are certain items that we were happily eating before that I can no longer convince myself to buy. Like meat.
Team Erickson is a family of meat eaters. Henry’s love of pork is well documented. Mark considers it the “trifecta” when he manages to have bacon at all three meals. Lucas enjoys nothing more than a good hamburger. Ava loves meat a little less, but still counts herself among the carnivores. Me, I can take it or leave it. Some things I love, but I can go without meat, especially here in Shanghai where the things I buy don’t compare in quality to the things I used to purchase in the United States.
So did I force everyone else to give up their beloved pork chops and chicken? Hardly. Did you hear about the 16,000 (!) pigs floating in the river here? The 1,000 ducks? That river eventually becomes the drinking water, by the way. Did you hear about all the chickens they killed once our new round of bird flu surfaced? We can’t do much about the polluted air– holding our breath forever isn’t a realistic option– but we can control what we eat and after a few of those stories we weren’t all that excited about meat.
Are we eating organic vegetables? Who knows? For all we know we are eating veggies grown entirely in toxic soil irrigated with the dirty water from some city roof. Actually, I am pretty sure we are eating at least a few vegetables grown in this less than ideal manner. We try not to drink the porky water with its high level of heavy metals and I don’t cook with it. But the water that comes into my house begins in that river full of carcasses and we all use it to shower. Is our bottled water any better? I have to trust that it comes from where it is supposed to– a big assumption for China– and that drinking it won’t eventually have some detrimental effect. Do I sound crazy? I am sure I do, but let me assure you I am far from the craziest person here when it comes to this issue. You should all be thanking me that I haven’t started forwarding all the alarming emails I get from the school and my neighbors concerning some new health scare. Don’t open your windows! It lets in horrible polluted air! Open your windows! Otherwise the off gassing from your carpets and paint will kill you all! Going home for the summer is not enough time to detox! We are all doomed!
The kids and I like to joke that we are becoming toxic superheroes. After breathing polluted air, bathing in toxic water, and eating vegetables grown in questionable soil we can now resist any sort of environmental hazard. After the next nuclear disaster, they can call Team Erickson to handle the clean up. We won’t need protective suits. We will breathe deeply and appreciate the relative freshness of the air. I should really get to work on our costumes!