My Lungs Feel Better Already!

Remember the Air Quality Index?  The wonderful way of telling everyone just how bad the air we are breathing today might be?  It just got more wonderful!  Check out this new idea– cute little pixies to tell you the air is so very gross you should just stay inside!  Who can feel bad about pollution when confronted with this?

I particularly like how when the pollution gets serious the tears really start to flow.  So sad, but still so cute!  Horrible.


Shoulder to Shoulder

One of the things that still always surprises me about China is the lack of personal space.  By now it should be commonplace to spend most of the day shoulder to shoulder with a million other people, but I am still using my Lamaze breathing at the grocery store.  It requires deep breathing for me to hold it together when the person behind me in line has their chest completely pressed against my back.  This is especially irritating when they have chosen to position themselves as close as possible merely to belabor the point that they think the line is moving too slowly.  As if getting extremely close to me will persuade me to speed things up.  The subway is crowded to the point that on more than one occasion someone has sneezed on my back and been so close that my hair flew forward as if a stiff breeze had blown through the car. And, yes, that experience is as horrifying as you imagine.

This lack of personal space also means there is a general lack of privacy about almost everything.  There are plenty of things you aren’t supposed to talk about in China, but apparently very few things you wouldn’t do in public.  Children, especially the potty training ones, are frequently seen relieving themselves over trashcans and in the gutter.  People loudly spit.  I saw more men peeing in the bushes here in our first week than I did during an entire semester of wilderness education in college.  Noses and ears get picked and the findings closely examined in plain view of everyone.  Some of these things are cultural, but many of them are just the result of living shoulder to shoulder every day, all day.  When you want to see something special and everyone else wants to see it too, you all go together and stand shoulder to shoulder there.  You want to see the lanterns at Yu Gardens?  So does everyone else in Shanghai.  Should we all go on Sunday?  Of course!  As my neighbor says, “That’s China.”  But he is Chinese so his shoulder shrug is really just my signal to get over it.

As someone who loves to have alone time, China can be disconcerting.  For me there is too much closeness—too much bumping and pushing—and not any of the things that I am used to happening with so much touching.  There is never the “excuse me” or the “sorry,” only more jostling.  My Chinese teacher admits that hugging and touching like the Americans or the Europeans do makes him uncomfortable.  It is too familiar.  Which makes it impossible for me to understand how he can be fine with the familiarity of having your entire body squashed between two complete strangers and not feel the need to mumble some sort of apology when your elbow whacks one of them in the stomach.  Apparently, those are two very different situations.

A few days ago, I was planting primroses in the containers out in front of the house.  As I worked, one of the guys who cleans up around the compound kept inching closer and closer.  When we were shoulder to shoulder he asked me why I wasn’t pulling out all the old flowers.  They were “bu hao”—not good.  He pretended to sweep my front steps as he stalked me around the planters giving me advice.  I am actually pretty sure they are “bu hao,” but having him insert himself into the situation made me determined to ignore his advice.  Why so close?  Why so intrusive?  I am sure he just thought he was helping the crazy lady who wasn’t smart enough to hire someone to take care of her planters for her.  The poor, poor lady who doesn’t know dead flowers when she sees them.  “No, no,” I had insisted and made him get even closer to show him the buds and the green leaves coming in on the old plants.  “Look here.  This is good.”  And what could he do but press his face close to mine and examine the evidence.  In an effort to have him give me my space I had invited him to get nearly cheek to cheek.  “Ok,” he had shrugged, obviously not convinced, but mercifully pretending to sweep away toward the street.

And so it goes here in China.  As I push back harder and harder, people get closer and closer.   The more I howl and shake my fist, the more China leans in and breathes down my neck.   But apparently “that’s China” and China doesn’t mind making me uncomfortable.

Hang Loose (Otherwise Known as Six)

Along with the language, there have been a few other things that cause miscommunication here for me in China.  I do an obscene amount of shopping here.  Sometimes, I am in a nice Western style store with set prices, English speaking staff, and blasting air conditioning in the summer.  Sometimes, however, I am in a market or a warehouse, or on the street with vendors who might know a little bit of English, but not enough for me to get by with my extremely imperfect Chinese.  I am getting better at communicating, of course, and I am frequently amazed by how much I understand.  But the important thing to remember here is that these things are in context.  No one ever calls me on the phone to randomly start talking about prices and no one in the markets ever tries to start a conversation with me about things outside the realm of buying and selling.  This makes it easier.  There is no scrambling around in my brain searching for the few words I know in a sentence to try to guess at meanings.  When I am in a restaurant, people talk to me about what I want to order almost as if we were following a lesson in a textbook.  When I am buying clothes at the fabric market, people talk prices and quality.  I don’t always get it, but I can get by.  One thing I didn’t anticipate (an unfortunate theme thus far here in Shanghai for me) is the differences in hand signals and symbols.

I should have seen this coming, of course.  As an English teacher I have taught this lesson myself a million times.  I choose to focus on all of the vulgar symbols and gestures because those tend to be the ones my students need to know.  In Sydney the foreign students were always amazed that gestures they thought were harmless were actually the reason they were getting into so many fist fights.  Who knew?  Luckily, I have managed to steer clear of accidentally offending anyone (as far as I know!), but I have discovered that my ability to communicate with my Chinese salespeople and taxi drivers has been less than successful because of the way I count on my fingers.  I don’t know how to count correctly!

The first time it happened, I was at the flower market and arguing over prices with one of the vendors.  I was having trouble understanding her, and she didn’t have a calculator or pen and paper to help clarify things.  She kept putting her two pointer fingers together in the shape of a cross as she repeated the same information over and over.  Fingers in a cross?  What did that mean?  The same thing happened a few minutes later when a vendor gave me what I thought was the symbol for  “hang loose.”  It seemed a little out of place for what we were talking about. Hang loose?!  Sure, but how much were the flowers?

Later, my Chinese teacher cleared things up for me.  Apparently the Chinese use specific hand symbols for numbers.  Symbols that I was seeing, but not understanding.  One through five were the same, but I could start with the pointer or the pinky.  Once we got to six, things got crazy.  There was the hang loose.  Seven was like a shadow puppet.  Eight was what I would think was air guns.  Nine was scrunched fingers that I had a hard time replicating.  And ten?  There were three possibilities for ten, one of which was the crossing fingers using the pointers from both hands.  Or you could cross your first two fingers on one hand.  Or you could make a fist.  Which one was more common?   It depends, apparently.  So you might see any of them.   Three lukewarm cheers for variety!

So you want to know how to count like a pro in Mandarin?  Want to add those quirky hand signals?


You are welcome.

An Open Letter to the Eastern European Caricature at My International Gym

Dear Fellow Gym User,

Please accept my sincere congratulations on becoming a member of this gym.  I think you will enjoy your time here.  The facilities really are second to none.  I am certain you will come to appreciate the abundance of clean towels in the locker room and the varied selections at the juice bar.

Now that we are on friendly terms, I hope you will forgive me if I admit that originally I had hoped you were just a hotel guest.  This is, after all, a hotel gym and plenty of people are here only for a few days and then they disappear never to been seen again.  So that first morning when you showed up, monopolizing several machines at once, I was hopeful that you were just passing through.  Normally, I try not to notice other gym patrons.  I try to concentrate on my workout with as little social interaction as possible.  But you managed to force me out of my routine.  From the moment you arrived on the scene my time at the gym was forever changed.

That unitard you were wearing was definitely a bold choice.  I have seen many things here in China, but a large Eastern European man in a tiny unitard is a first.  I was half expecting to see some amateur wresting break out on the mats over by the punching bags.  Imagine my disappointment when you merely paced around while the rest of us made use of the treadmills.  It takes cajones to pull that look off.  And you certainly have those.  That was difficult to ignore.  That outfit was tight.  And while I know there are many things in this country that involve extra services and hidden meanings, this is not a “gym” in the way that many of the places you might have recently visited might be “massage parlors.”  So those two beautiful Chinese girls?  Yeah, they are actually trying to work out.  I don’t think they were hoping you would come over to watch the trainer put them through their paces.  And the grunting?  You weren’t even exercising!   That was truly unnecessary.  But, to each his own!  I hope you didn’t catch the particularly sour look I shot you from over by the elliptical machines.  We didn’t know each other then and I had not yet come to understand your special charms.

After that performance, I wasn’t expecting to have you turn up the next morning with an even more impressive outfit!  That tracksuit was a thing of beauty—shiny and tight with elastic at both the wrists and the ankles.  Amazing, really.  Was it waterproof?  It was the kind of thing only Borat would wear, but there you were, rocking that outfit like no one’s business.  I was hoping you might actually work out.  There are weights here, you know.  You could lift some, if the mood struck you.  Or you could take a class.  I hear spinning is popular here.  Just a suggestion.  It might help with some of what I can only assume is an excess of pent up energy.  Or a serious mental disorder.  Why else would you have ignored all those fancy machines in favor of standing in that corner panting and sweating?  Yes, I noticed you had fixated on some more of those lovely Chinese ladies.  They do seem to be everywhere here!  Of course, they didn’t give you the opportunity to introduce yourself, what with all that exercising they were doing!  But don’t worry!  With your new gym membership you will have plenty of chances to bond with them over by the water dispenser.

So let me just close by welcoming you once again.  Asia is always in need of more men making confident fashion choices in unexpected places.  You are certainly a trendsetter in that area.  While I have been less than impressed with your exercise regimen, there are plenty of trainers here that can help you with that!  Just make an appointment.  And I am sure those ladies you fancy will soon come around to your unique way of presenting yourself.  How will they be able to resist your bravado?  Your steely gaze?  Your sweaty but silent advances?  If you keep coming back, again and again, eventually they will get used to you.  I am certain the same will be true for me.  I am positive it is only a matter of time before you and I become fast friends.

Yours in fitness,



B-Squared Bike Helmet Turn Signal

At school, I did a project called the invention convention. We had to invent something and present it to the judges. I made a bicycle helmet turn signal that will help prevent motorcycle and bicycle accidents. Dad wants to get a patent for our design, make infomercials, and try to sell them. So I made a blog to share this invention with the public. If you are interested, please come to the blog at:

Henry the Kung Fu Master

IMG_0773It is almost Chinese New Year and that means it is time for Henry to dazzle us all with his kung fu skills!  He has been taking kung fu after school for a while now and was excited to get a chance to show off his moves during the school performance.  Allegedly this routine originally had the song “Kung Fu Fighting” as the accompanying music.  I have no proof of this and I am so sorry to report that for the actual performance they used some more generic Chinese music.

They performed twice and the first video I shot includes mainly the backs of other people’s heads.  It is just like the pirated DVDs we can get here!  While I am sure you all would have enjoyed watching Henry through the crowd of other parents, I managed to slide closer for the second show.  Please excuse the giant pole that blocks his floor moves!  My video skills could use some work, obviously.  The best part of the performance occurred when the kids took the stage and the children in the audience from Henry’s class started calling out, “Henry! Henry!”  I don’t think I captured that on film, but you might get to see his dismissive wave as he walks to his spot.  Stars have no time for the commoners, you know.


When Worlds Collide

Mornings for me are always the worst.  I will confess that I am not a morning person.  Surprise!  Getting the kids up and out the door doesn’t usually help my morning brighten up much.  Lucas is a morning person and loves to be up before the sun has even considered rising.  Ava and Henry, well, they have been known to huddle under the covers for as long as possible on school days.  This morning was no exception as we organized ourselves to make the mighty lurch out the door.  I deliberately “forgot” to remind the kids that this was technically Super Bowl Sunday in the United States.  No need to upset the little Ravens fans any more than usual on a Monday.  Henry was dragging and then spit toothpaste down the front of his only clean PE sweatshirt.  As usual the uniform doesn’t really help us when we need to decide between two equally dirty options. We settled on the toothpaste.  It was less offensive than the lunch remnants clinging to Henry’s next cleanest shirt.  Luckily, for Henry cleanliness isn’t something he worries about so he was out the door and into the school building with little fuss.

Next on the agenda: a brisk walk up the street to City Shop—one of my disappointing and overpriced expat grocery stores.  We are dangerously close to running out of all sorts of things as I scramble to finish my dissertation.  I had planned on giving the ayi the day off so that I could work in peace and avoid doing any shopping.  Alas, getting in touch with her proved impossible and then there was nothing left to do but head to the store.  I could have gone to our trusty Carrefour or Metro, but I am still somewhat wedded to the American brands for our cleaning supplies.  Sometimes I strike out if I don’t go to the expat grocery.  Our ayi has enough experience that she is beyond using only water to clean everything (something other expats warned me about with looks of grave danger on their faces), but the Chinese stuff has proven to be mostly water anyway.  One bottle of bleach smelled suspiciously like rainwater and not in a pleasant way.  Other things have worked fine but lack the scents that my American brain has come to recognize as clean.  So rather than deal with melon and aloe scented toilets, I am still paying a million dollars to have my bathroom smell like lemons.  Please try to keep your snickering to a minimum.

Today walking to the store involved more face to face encounters with Shanghai.  Every few steps here can bring a new assault on your senses.  Yes, it is dirty.  There was more stuff on the sidewalk today that needed to be avoided both with my eyes and with my feet.  There is plenty to see.  Everyone has laundry out or meat hanging from window sills to cure.  Today though it was more about smells.   Sometimes Shanghai smells wonderful.  For a whole block you can sometimes get a whiff of what your neighbor is making for dinner or you might pass by some particularly fragrant plant.  Other times, just a few steps away, you get hit full in the face with the smell of Shanghai sewer.  Sometimes Shanghai stinks.   Combine that with the throat burning pollution and it can make for one exciting stroll.

And while I was concentrating on the smells I happened to overhear something from my past.  As I was walking along I could hear one of the dialogues from a textbook I used to teach getting louder and louder.  Ah, Headway Intermediate.  The British version, not the American.  The dialogue with the man and the woman discussing what they like to do “at the weekend.”  And I remembered every line of that ridiculous dialogue although it took me a minute to discover where the sound was coming from.  Finally, a tiny Chinese woman passed me, listening to her phone.  She wasn’t wearing headphones and had the volume cranked up so that she could hear the conversation as she held the phone under her chin.  We didn’t make eye contact, but I am sure I looked ridiculous as a giant grin spread across my face.  And I wore that secret smile all the way down the street.

Bad Air

Lately here in Shanghai we have had quite a few days where the air quality has been labeled “red.”  We look at the AQI, the Air Quality Index, to see if the air is too dangerous to breathe.  Red means it is “unhealthy” and the recommendation is to keep kids and the elderly inside.  If you have “sensitivities” or heart or lung disease then you should plan to stay inside too.  This means that on red air days I get an email from Henry’s school informing me that there will be no outside recess.  The same usually goes for the older kids even though their school is closer to the ocean and allegedly has “better air.”  You hear that here constantly.  Pudong has “fresher” air than Puxi because of the trees.  When the Chinese go on vacation they comment on the quality of the air and the “freshness” of the breezes.  This seemed strange to me at first, but now I can see why.  When you live with pollution constantly, clear skies can be shocking.  You gape at fluffy clouds and stars at night.  You forget what they look like after you live without them for a while.

When we first arrived, I had no idea that the air quality was a big deal.  I thought of the AQI the same way I think of that terror threat scale in the United States.  It is good to know that it is around, but I never pay any attention to it.  It stayed at red for so long that red ceased to mean anything at all.  For me the air quality idea was the same.  Does it ever get to purple?  Or to that brownish color that indicates we should all stay inside and remain perfectly still?  Once when one of Lucas’ friends didn’t come over on his bike as planned, we were all surprised to learn that his mother had refused to let him out of the house due to the air quality.  What?  It had been a lovely day—one of the few with blue skies and mild temperatures—and I had let my kids run around outside all afternoon.  Parenting fail, apparently.  I knew Shanghai had pollution, but I had been expecting something like those cartoon factories with black smoke billowing for everyone to see.  I hadn’t realized that a beautiful day could still be a heavily polluted one.

The past few days, however, you can really see the pollution.  My brain still tricks me into thinking it is just fog, or that it might rain, but really it is just pollution.  Pollution so thick that you can’t see through it sometimes.  Inexplicably, my Chinese teacher prefers the pollution to rain.  He would rather have the gray hazy pollution than drizzle.  I counter that at least the rain washes the place clean, but he disagrees.  Then the pollution is just in the water and the soil, he says, but that is the price for Chinese development.  Just wait, he says, the factories are slowly moving.  They are going to Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam.  Soon tourists will stop talking about their beautiful blue skies and their fresh, clean air.  Then they will pay the price for developing and China can clean up a little bit.  But for now, the haze continues and China’s progress marches on.