Hoarding, Shanghai Style

Over the summer, a family friend asked about my daily routine.  How had I been filling my time in Shanghai, particularly since all three kids were in school most of the day?  I know most people expect an exotic answer.  I should have been doing things that one can only do here in China, right?  I should have spent my time doing things that make my old American life seem boring.  Sorry folks, my answer sounded surprisingly mundane.  My days last spring could have passed for those of your typical American housewife.  I got the kids up and hustled them off to the bus stop.  I went to the gym.  I thought about what to make for dinner.  It sounds boring.  Believe me, I know.  All these things might have been the same even if we had never decided to move to China.  But being in China adds an element that is difficult to really convey when I explain my life to people who don’t live here.  Even the most mundane tasks become special challenges.  And these challenges have begun to make crazy things seem totally reasonable.

I know some of you have seen the American tv show “Hoarders.”  Of course you have!  You can go ahead and admit it.  Everyone loves to see all the ridiculous or disgusting things the people on that show have packed into their houses.  They always have reasonable explanations for how things got so out of control, how “collecting” became something bigger or saving for a rainy day turned into being unable to open your front door.  They all had perfectly good reasons to start accumulating cats or to begin carpeting their floors with dirty laundry.  So how did they all end up with a house full of crazy?  And how does this apply to Team Erickson?  Well, apparently Shanghai has turned me into a hoarder.

Currently I am hoarding cheese.  Yes, cheese.  Specifically, I am hoarding that orange colored cheddar cheese.  I no longer care if it is mild or sharp.  It just has to be orange.  I know that cheddar cheese should not really be orange.  I know that white cheddar cheese tastes just as good, maybe better.  This means nothing to me.  What matters to me now is one simple fact: Blocks of orange cheddar cheese used to be available everywhere here.  Now, they are impossible to find.  Predictably, we now cannot possibly live without this cheese.  We need, need, need this cheese so when I find a store selling a few blocks, I buy them all.  Every. Single. Package.  I am not exaggerating for effect here.  I clear the entire shelf.  I leave a gaping hole where the cheese used to be.  I have no remorse.  I don’t think of the other expat moms also on the hunt for this cheese.  I don’t feel sorry that I have most likely ruined their attempts at taco night.  Sometimes I cackle as I haul my groceries home.  Cheese!  Orange cheese!

There have been other things I have had to hoard: sour cream, Progresso minestrone soup, our favorite kind of granola.  I made Mark clear the shelves of Pimm’s in anticipation of summer.  Other Shanghai moms have expressed their frustration when something we have all come to expect will always be around suddenly—inexplicably—disappears.  Multiple ladies are currently searching Shanghai stores for the orange cheddar cheese.  We share recent sightings, gloat over our prize catches.  Not everyone leaves a bare shelf, but most come very, very close.  During the sour cream shortage of 2012, one friend filled her freezer with the containers she found.  She created such an impressive stockpile that her husband became alarmed when he realized there was no room for any other food.  They had a freezer full of sour cream. She needed the sour cream, but was quick to explain herself to me.  “You’re from the South!  You understand.  How am I supposed to cook without sour cream?”  Oh, I understood.  I have filled Henry’s closet with cans of soup, organic long life milk and imported peanut butter.  I am in no position to judge.


China Crazy

I will admit to always feeling a little frantic when it comes time to leave the US and return to China.  There are always things that needed to be done that never got checked off our list, people we wanted to see who we weren’t able to connect with, places we wanted to go that never quite worked out.  There is the sadness at leaving behind family and friends.  The last day or so I start to feel panicky.  The last few times it has been very, very hard to organize myself to actually get on that plane.  I don’t want to be dramatic, it isn’t like that scene from Dead Man Walking, but those last few steps onto the plane seem to happen in slow motion.  I’m not the only one who feels this way.  I won’t name any names, but other expats have mentioned feeling their hearts constrict in those minutes before the plane takes off.  I am usually the lady wrangling her kids while taking deep breaths and hoping they start drink service ASAP so I can get a glass of wine.  Yes, even on the morning flights.

So imagine my surprise when people posted this on their Facebook pages:


No, that wasn’t me. We were on a different flight, silly.  And we were in economy.

Of course, people began commenting on how sad it was and how there must have been something else happening.  Maybe she had taken some medication that interacted with the alcohol or maybe she had been drinking profusely in the lounge before she boarded the flight.  I don’t know, of course, and it is horrible that they needed to divert the flight and that she was arrested, but the overwhelming feeling that washed over me after reading the article was relief.  There, I said it, I was relieved.  Relieved that I wasn’t the only crazy one, the only one who occasionally thinks about flipping out on that return flight to Shanghai.  Even better, I am not the one who let the crazy out on the return flight to Shanghai.  Success!  Let’s all consider this a triumph.  Because there is crazy and there is China crazy.  I think we all know which kind of crazy I am.  (I am hoping you all thought “China crazy.”  You did, right?)  China makes you crazy.  You need evidence?  I submit the best comments concerning this incident gathered from friends and acquaintances:

“That’s what 9 years in Shanghai will do to you.”

“She must have been drinking that fake Chinese wine made with turpentine.”

“And they were in first class.  Those seats lay all the way flat!“

“Some people just can’t handle Shanghai.”

“China DOES make you crazy.”

And last but not least: “At least she ended up in an American prison.”

So now when we make the trip back and forth from China to the United States, I will have even more reason to try to keep my crazy to myself.  I certainly don’t want to follow in the footsteps of this trailblazer.   No copycat crime for me– no matter how much I might sometimes dread returning to Shanghai. Of course, if we are in economy then all bets are off.

Paging Dr. Pu

We are back in Shanghai and the opportunities for blog posts are piling up faster than I can write them down.  First, let me begin by saying that our first few weeks back have had amazing weather.  It is hotter than an oven with record-breaking temperatures, but the air quality has been amazing.  Seriously amazing.  Remember when the pollution levels were up in the two and three hundreds?  One morning when we woke up, they were measuring the pollution levels as an eight.  An eight!!!  Let me give you an idea of the difference:

A bad air day

A bad air day

A "good" air day

A “good” air day

An excellent air day!

An excellent air day!

It made it almost bearable to be back in China again after our summer adventures.  As one neighbor explained, “If you just don’t look down, you can forget you are in China!”  Just focus on the sky, people!

IMG_0333True to form, the kids all caught some sort of horrible disease as soon as we landed.  Most likely we got it on the plane, but does that even really matter at this point?  There was plenty of coughing and sniffling and we almost broke out Lucas’ nebulizer.  Henry was the last to fall, finally developing a horrible headache on Sunday that required our house full of friends to cut their epic battle short.  In the middle of the night he was up again with a headache and slight fever.  He threw up the medicine I gave him and he and I spent the remainder of the night in the living room.  I kept him home from school the next day and he seemed to rally.  Predictably, when the question of returning to school came up he was adamant that he was still extremely ill.  He even thought he might have strep throat.  It hurt to swallow!  He couldn’t eat!  Oh, the pain!  I was skeptical. He insisted that I examine his throat and once I managed to find a working headlamp (don’t ask) I was surprised to find that his throat was red, swollen, and disgustingly splotchy.  In fact, it perfectly matched the Internet illustration of strep throat.

So the next morning we visited our Chinese pediatrician’s office.  There was a new doctor, of course, since we have yet to see the same person there more than once.  The nurse gave me the new doctor’s card and explained that Dr. Pu would most likely be around for a while.  I waited for Henry to notice that his new doctor had such an interesting name, but he had no reaction.  None!  Here was the perfect joke for a 6 year old boy and he was missing opportunity after opportunity.  Dr. Pu was a Chinese woman who proceeded to listen to Henry’s laundry list of complaints. She took the time to belch loudly in the middle of questioning him about the duration of his sore throat.  No apology, no discussion, no pause even.  Her bedside manner is second to none, obviously.  After diagnosing Henry with a sinus infection she berated me for even suspecting strep.  His throat would look much worse!  Consider his symptoms! I didn’t mention that I had consulted WebMD before making the appointment although I suspected she might have done the same.   Her description of the illness seemed to be lifted word for word from the website.  She refused to do any sort of test to make sure it wasn’t strep and then confided that if it was strep the antibiotics she had prescribed would knock that out as well.  She also told me that Henry didn’t need to actually finish the medicine– a different powder for me to mix this time!– and then gave me some convoluted explanation of the number of days worth of medicine he was to take depending on how he felt.  All very scientific.  But I would never second guess Dr. Pu.  (Snicker, snicker.)  She is a professional.


Usually the summer breaks give us a moment for a little perspective.  I take the kids for 6 or 7 weeks and we leave China behind.  We march ourselves to the airport and go to visit the grandparents in the United States.  We check in on our old friends and overdose on all the American products we have been living without.

Me:  “What do you guys want to eat while we are back in the United States?”


Our trip home last summer was stressful.  There was too much living out of suitcases and the inevitable unmet expectations that come with a highly anticipated trip.  It was our first summer home and no one was sure what to expect.  Or rather, we all had expectations, and sometimes those turned out to be in conflict with some of the expectations of other people.  It’s not that people weren’t being hospitable—quite the opposite.  It’s that being a guest for weeks at a time is hard on everyone.  It is tricky coming back to your home country, even if it is only for a short while.  The kids are just beginning to realize this and it is bittersweet.  They miss “home,” but they are having trouble defining what that means.  When a friend asked Lucas where he felt most comfortable, in the United States or in China, he had difficulty answering.  They are in limbo.

For our second summer, I tried to be a little more proactive.  We are moving around lots, but with a nice break in the middle where we are by ourselves for a bit.  I hadn’t intended for us to be alone just the 4 of us, but plans fell through and we are hanging out in Florida in a borrowed house.  Which is turning out to be just what we needed.  Because it turns out the second summer home is different from the first.  The novelty has worn off and we are missing our routine.  Except now we have no real “routine.”  There is no summer camp or swim team, no garden in the backyard.   There are no lazy summer days with nothing to do and we need those. We miss the way summers used to be.

Our routine now involves leaving daddy, the dog, and the new kitten and traveling all day.  Our 14 hour flight now seems not only manageable, but normal.  We call the flight from Los Angeles to Baltimore “the short flight” and we can travel without putting much thought into what to pack.  This trip was uneventful.  When we only got 3 upgrades to first class (ahem, perspective) on the short flight, I gave them to the kids so they could sleep better.  I told the flight attendant where I would be in economy and left it at that.  Our only tense moment came during our layover when Lucas decided to begin acting in the role of narrator for our conversations, intoning in a grave voice things like, “She said angrily,” every time I opened my mouth.  My reaction was unpleasant, but we all survived the incident.  When it comes time to leave, we will do it all over again, making the trip in reverse.

The first summer was all about novelty.  It was about packing as much in as possible.  The second summer has turned out to be a bit more introspective as we all realize some of the loss that comes with taking the opportunity to live in Shanghai.  For the kids, the world has gotten big—but not so big that they can’t see the things we are missing out on.  They want to go camping like they used to.  They want to have their father share more of their summer adventures.  They want a few lazy days in their underwear watching cartoons.

These crazy traveling summers prove that moving to China has some serious drawbacks.  We miss clean air and drinking water, for example.  Those are not small things.  And life in Shanghai also has one element that we are really only experiencing for the first time this summer: everyone is constantly in transition.  When we come back from our vacation, each of the kids will be missing at least one significant friend.  Either they have returned home or their family has been sent on a new international assignment.  In this expat community, no one sticks around for long.  And this is now part of our routine. Every December and June means people leaving and every January and August means new kids at school and new families in our neighborhood.  Eventually we will leave China for someplace new, which should really put things in perspective.  Because even though it sometimes sounds like we will never escape China’s clutches, we won’t be living in Shanghai forever.


Hulk Smash!

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.

Team Tofu

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!

Kids Gone Wild

So spring break has come and gone in Shanghai.  Where did the members of Team Erickson spend their holiday time?  We had a plan to visit Vietnam.  This plan, predictably, fell through.  Apparently, Mark needed to work!  Ridiculous.  I was very excited about the Vietnam trip and reacted badly to the realization that it was not going to happen.  I reacted very, very badly.  This had the effect of frightening Mark into agreeing to come with the rest of us on our second choice trip—Beijing.

Mark and I have been to Beijing and for us it wasn’t the trip of a lifetime.  But since we are living in China it would seem reasonable that the kids should see a few things outside of Shanghai.  That famous wall, for example. Tiananmen Square.  And who are we not to share our whining with the general Chinese population?  Why should the Shanghainese get all the good stuff?  Sometimes we have to take our unique blend of irritation on the road.  Poor, poor Beijing.

The trip started out with a bang once Lucas realized that many of his friends would be returning to our neighborhood from their trips just as we would be flying out.  Oh the injustice!  This after he had spent so much time earlier in the week moaning on the couch about his boredom.  Life is truly not fair.  So we began our trip out of Shanghai with at least one less than happy traveler.  But this would not stop us!  No!  We had some historical stuff to see.

The one thing that was sustaining any interest in this trip was the promise of riding the big slide down from the Great Wall.  Yes, the Wall is a marvel, wonderful and amazing to behold, blah, blah, blah.  Who cares about that?  What we really cared about was the slide.  Yes, there is a section of the Wall that has more than one option for going up (cable car, chair lift, hiking) and the most awesome option ever for coming back down–  a long metal slide that snakes down from the Wall to the bottom of the hill.  It gets hot as Hell in the sun and the brakes on the little sleds you sit in are basically doorstops, but no matter!  All the Erickson kids could think about was that slide.  Everyone else had ridden the slide!  The slide was the most awesome part!  There was no end to the magnificence of the slide.  If the early Chinese had any sense at all they would have saved all that time they spent building that giant wall and just built a giant slide instead.DSC_0086

Mark has already experienced the slide and can vouch for its awesomeness.  I, unfortunately, have never had the chance to ride down on the slide. The last time we went to the Wall I was about six months pregnant.  Apparently pregnant women are not allowed to sit on a tiny toboggan and hurtle themselves down a molten metal chute using a doorstop for brakes.  At least not visibly pregnant ones.  There are rules, you know.  There are safety concerns and even the Chinese have to draw the line somewhere.  This was also the trip where Mark’s Chinese colleagues insisted that I never take the stairs and scurried around hunting elevators in every building we ever entered.  I am surprised they even let me look at the Wall.  The slide?  No way.  Even if I was too stupid to know I should never have left the house the workers at the slide were never going to be a part of some foolhardy scheme.  I stood a safe distance away and was in charge of photos.

So we really talked up the slide.  It was all the kids would get out of bed for once we were cocooned at the hotel.  I had hired a driver and from the forecast had decided that Thursday was the best day for reasonable weather.  We headed out for what should have been a 90 minute ride but instead participated in a 3 hour trek on back roads.  We were trying to get to the Wall on Qingming—Tomb Sweeping Day—and every other Chinese person was trying to get somewhere as well.  We arrived, and rode the cable car up to the top.  We actually rode in the same cable car that brought President Clinton up on his visit.  I thought that this was maybe a decal they had attached inside all the cable cars, but when we got out it turned out we were in THE actual car that had transported Bubba.  Of course, my enthusiasm was matched by no one.  You guys?!  President Clinton!  I might as well have been talking to myself.DSC_0078DSC_0075DSC_0082DSC_0085

I should add here that from the time we left the hotel, it had been cloudy.  But it wasn’t raining.  Once the kids were actually touching the Wall, they did the required amount of looking in “awe” before attempting to run directly to the slide.  DSC_0093DSC_0096There is no running on the Wall and as parents we had been hoping for a bit more interest.  About 5 minutes later it began to rain. DSC_0139DSC_0123DSC_0113Mark whispered that he thought they might not let people take the slide down in the rain. I immediately turned him to stone with my icy glare.  Then it began to hail. It wasn’t golf ball sized or anything, but it was difficult to ignore.  Suffice it to say that by the time we reached the slide (a mere 20 minutes later) it was pouring.  The slide was most certainly closed and, we were later told, would stay that way all day.  Certain members of our party reacted badly.  For once it wasn’t me!  Mark and I passed the time taking videos of Lucas’ meltdown and waiting for it to stop raining.  Both the meltdown and the rain continued unabated so we decided to take the chair lift down.

There was much tooth gnashing and eye rolling as Lucas decided he would only ride the chair lift ALONE.  One of the guys working at the chair lift pretended he was going to ride with Lucas and all the other workers laughed and laughed. Oh, China.  How I love it when you help contribute to the parental hazing.  Lucas managed to crack a small smile followed by a scowl directed at me and his younger sister.  Ava and I rode in the car behind him and heckled him until we were back on the ground.  We were wonderful representatives of our country.  And this was only our first day!  America, you are welcome.  Beijing, we apologize.

Cultured Palates

After school one day, Henry greeted me at pick up time with a package.  It was a “snack” he had been given by a friend and he needed help opening it.

Not Candy

Not Candy

Notice that the package clearly states that this “snack” is sea vegetable.  Roasted seaweed!  There is even a photo, albeit somewhat misleading, that plainly shows the contents to be green.  I pointed this out to Henry who responded to my concern with the famous Erickson eye roll and an impatient, “I know!”  Never one to miss out on the chance to watch my children suffer, I promptly tore the wrapper open and waited for the inevitable.  Would he spit it out?  Fall to the ground and writhe around in agony?  Beg for a drink to wash the foul taste from his delicate American tongue?  Instead, this happened:IMG_0009

And then this:IMG_0008

And some of this:IMG_0006What!?  It seems that Henry likes sheets of roasted seaweed!  Who knew?  “I eat this all the time,” he informed me before dismissing me with a wave of his grubby little fingers.

Later, at home, Ava spied the empty package.  “You bought this for Henry?!” she accused.  “No fair!”  Hello, this is SEAWEED, children.  Sea VEGETABLE, no less!  Apparently Ava has been eating it all the time, too.  On purpose.

“It really is delicious, Mom,” Lucas chimed in.  “Crunchy and salty.  You can’t go wrong with that.”  Lucas has been sampling roasted seaweed as well.  With gusto.  And all of this without me having any idea.  I had absolutely no knowledge of this new favorite snack.  They come home from school requesting “those Korean dried noodles” and wanting “fairy bread” for their birthdays.  Who are these little citizens of the world?

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.