Guess who just found a stack of old notices sent by the compound management office? Comedy gold!
At the end of the month I always have the horrible realization that it is time to pay the bills. Everyone has this feeling I suppose—the dread of parting with your hard earned money, the hope that it won’t take up too much of your time. In the United States, I used to have things organized so that I did most of it online. The mortgage gets paid automatically; the other things have scheduled payments. Aside from forgetting to put money in the account, my worst fear was forgetting my password or my user name for the gas company. For those few bills that still required a check to be written, I took care of that with my handy dandy checkbook. I could buy stamps and then put the bill in my mailbox for the mailman to pick up. If I was feeling like taking a little walk I could saunter down Roland Avenue, get a coffee at my Starbucks, chat with my friendly lady at the Deepdene Post Office (also named Gwen!), and then shop at the Children’s Bookstore after I had mailed my letter. So civilized when you think about it. And, I must add, so easy. So easy, in fact that I assumed China would be similar. Doesn’t everyone do things this way?
Oh, you all know by now what to expect here! The answer is no. No way. Paying my bills in Shanghai is nothing like doing this in the United States. China runs on cash. I do have what is essentially a debit card, but I can’t use anything resembling online banking because I can’t read characters. I apologize if all the native Mandarin speakers would scoff at my description of how things get done around here, but for an English-speaking White lady getting the bills paid ain’t easy!
Mark had been living in Shanghai for a while before the rest of us arrived, so he had managed to figure out a few things. Unfortunately, his apartment was serviced and so some of the things that became important for me were new for him as well. We set up the bank accounts (a story of epic hilarity and frustration as well), but couldn’t do much more than get money from an ATM or pay for groceries at places that accept Union Pay. This is basically the only type of card you can use in many places. Occasionally my AMEX or US bankcards will work, but sometimes it is Union Pay or the highway so it is helpful to have a Chinese bank account. However, most of the time I need to pay for things in cash and especially in the beginning this was frustrating. In the US, I carry very little cash. This keeps me from spending it. Here I need cash to pay for everything, which brings us to my bill paying dilemma.
In Shanghai I need to pay my bills in cash. Mark handles the rent and a few other things. Some of that is cash and some of that is wired directly. The utilities—phone, gas, electric—I pay and I do it all in cash. This is a multistep process that usually goes something like this:
- The bills arrive in the mail. The ayi checks the mail and then hides the bills for me to find somewhere around the house.
- I find the bills! I can’t read what they say, of course, so I must blindly accept that they are correct. Sometimes I get a bill or a note that I have never seen before. Guess what I do then? I either find someone to help me translate or I just pay it to avoid the hassle of human contact. Wheee!
- I go to an ATM to get money to pay the bills. To give you an idea of the ridiculousness of this, our electric bill is usually more than 2000 rmb a month. Most ATMs only let you get out 2000rmb at a time. To pay the bills and then also hand our ayi her wad of money at the end of the month, I stand at the machine asking it to give me 2000 rmb multiple times. I then stuff what looks like an obscene amount of money in my bag.
- Next I do something crazy! Most people send their ayi or driver to pay the bills for them, but because getting all this cash means I am already out, I just go ahead and pay them myself at Family Mart. What is Family Mart, you ask? This is basically 7-11. In Shanghai I pay my bills at 7-11, which, obviously, is weird.
Paying bills at the convenience store takes some getting used to. Family Mart is not a welcoming place. It is bright and smells like the crazy mystery meat that is sold there on sticks in these gross little cups of liquid. Is it broth? Is it water? I will never find out because I will never, ever buy this. There is the discomfort of pulling out a wad of cash in front of a dozen Chinese customers. This never gets easier as everyone here is in everyone else’s business pretty much all the time. No one averts their eyes. No one gives you a little space to spill the contents of your wallet on the counter and then proceed to count to a million. People sometimes see me and then deliberately cut in front of me because, hey this is how we do it in China, and I also look too White to cuss at anyone in Mandarin. My stack of bills is also a hint that I will be camped out for a bit with the cashier so they are willing to knock me over to avoid spending that quality time with me.
Late bills cannot be paid at Family Mart, those have to be paid somewhere else. I have no idea where that is, of course, so it is of the utmost importance that I make my trek to Family Mart before the end of the month. Handing the cashier a late bill requires more Mandarin than I can manage and the extra ire of my fellow customers.
Often either the cashier or another customer will comment on my expensive bills. They make noises and discuss amongst themselves. Watching an expat spend some of what most Chinese assume is an endless supply of money is fascinating. It requires comment. I understand this. It costs more money than it should to heat and cool our house. We should all just put on a jacket in the winter and get used to being sweaty in the summer. We won’t do this, of course, and so I keep being the object of opinions in Family Mart.
Mark contends that it is not the amount of money that I am spending that garners so much attention, but rather, the fact that I am spending this money myself. The combination of expat utility bills and the actual expat paying them is the part that is blowing people’s minds. You have the money to pay those bills but not the sense to hire someone else to do that for you? What are you, insane? I think we all know the answer to this question. Of course I am insane! I moved my family to China and now I am paying bills in Family Mart! That is all the proof you need.
Remember when I described the meat section of Carrefour? How the meat is in these big open bins and you choose the pieces you want? Here is more proof that I am not crazy and that Chinese shoppers value “creative” solutions to problems. Enjoy!
The latest from Lucas…
I apparently just became a victim of an accidental prank call. This is how it went:
I was texting my mom about my homework, when the phone rang. I answered it, saying “Hello, Erickson residence”. The voice on the other line sounded like a woman. (She was also southern, which adds to the funniness of the story later.) So anyway, back to the point. She didn’t say anything for a minute. I said “Hello? Who is this?” she answered back “Hi, are you Spanish?” I was wondering why she would ask, but I answered, “Um… no”. She asked who I was, and I told her that my name was Lucas Erickson. She told me she was looking for someone named ‘David’, but everything each of us said followed a little bit of hesitation. I thought it was just a normal, wrong number problem, and I told her that she had the wrong number. She pushed on saying, “Come on, I know it’s you!” I tried to persuade her that I wasn’t this ‘David’ but she wouldn’t listen to anything I said, I don’t know how exactly I sounded Spanish over the phone. I eventually got to the point where I got bored with repeating “No” over and over again, so I just hung up. She called back a second time, this time mumbling something as soon as I answered. I said, “What?” She responded back with the same mumbling, just a little bit louder than before. Then a Russian-sounding man got on the line, and said “Hey!” In my opinion, it’s hard enough as-is to understand Russian people, add that to the fact that he sounded like he had a frog stuck in his throat. At this point, I was starting to consider that these people might be stalking me and I might somehow end up gagged, tied up, and stuffed into the back of their van driving to who-knows-where, so I just hung up. I had an idea now, and so the next time they called me back, (Which was in like five seconds), I put my great mind to use. The conversation went like this:
Her: “Yes, hi”
Me: “I don’t know you people, I’m twelve years old, my name is Lucas Erickson, and I live in China. If you don’t believe me, go to my mom’s blog, ericksonsinchina.com”.
Her: “You lying motherf**ker!”
Me: “You know what, screw you!”
I then hung up on her, and went back to playing my video game. I was called again a little while after, and she incoherently mumbled what I think was “Sorry”, then I heard her tell someone behind her, (Unless she was talking to herself), that they should have believed me the first time. I hung up, and wasn’t called again. Good riddance. I hope they’re reading this blog right now, and if they are, was it really necessary to call me a lying motherf**ker?
In China there are plenty of interesting things to see. Shanghai itself has no shortage of big name attractions and local color. Before the move, I was looking forward to seeing some of this first hand. I had been warned that sometimes living in China would be uncomfortable, but I was sure that living in Shanghai would provide opportunities that overshadowed any of this discomfort. For a Westerner, the city can seem crowded and dirty, but once again I credited my previous experiences living abroad with preparing me to live outside my comfort zone. I tried to arm myself with the knowledge that would have me ready to hit the ground running once we arrived. But as always, the Grumpy Laowai found out the hard way that there is no way to adequately prepare yourself for the day-to-day experience of living in China. I knew about the spitting and I soon learned about the public urination, but no one thought to warn me about one of the most common sights here in Shanghai: nose picking.
Since the big move two years ago, I have witnessed many, many incidents involving strangers and their boogers. I have children, so I am not going to pretend that nose picking is something I have never seen. I have spent a fair amount of my time discouraging people from sticking their fingers up their noses. I have taught elementary school so you know I have been given many opportunities to encourage the use of tissues and to discuss the merits of hand washing. Elementary school kids pick their noses and they tend to do it with little thought about those around them. After a few years of teaching combined with parenting toddlers I was fairly certain there were few surprises left for me when it came to boogers. I should never have underestimated the power of China.
Naturally, China cannot ignore the opportunity for a challenge. When I arrive confident in having seen it all, China loves to kick me in the face. China plays to win, and, let me tell you, elementary school has nothing on China when it comes to nose picking. No sir. China has made picking your nose into a sport and the local citizens here in Shanghai are professionals.
Let me clarify by saying that I understand people sometimes need to pick their noses. I myself am in possession of a nose that I have occasionally felt the need to pick. I am not putting myself on a pedestal here. But for most people, myself included, this is one of those needs that is best taken care of quickly and in private followed by a good hand washing. Not so for my friendly fellow subway goers and supermarket shoppers, apparently.
Here the picking is done in public and with an obscene amount of booger contemplation. The kind of activity that if I were to observe it from a person in the United States I would also hope was coming accompanied by an adult diaper. At the most ridiculous times people will stick their fingers up their noses and begin a thorough investigation. Conversation never skips a beat, people never blink, and the results are then produced as if in the privacy of one’s own home. Usually the nose picker will then continue using that hand to hold the middle bar in our subway car to steady himself or go on pushing her shopping cart. It is communal living at its best, folks.
Observing this behavior has begun to severely limit my enjoyment of many of the small pleasures I had once enjoyed in Shanghai. I am not proud to confess that I used to love going to IKEA here. It is still Chinese, but there is something comforting about the similarities you find in any IKEA around the world. When people aren’t tucking themselves into the display bed to take a nap you can pretend you are in some American city or Sweden or France.
One of my favorite things about the IKEA here is the fact that you can buy an ice cream cone for one rmb. That is like getting an ice cream for free! If I had one of my kids with me, we would each enjoy a super cheap nondairy ice cream cone after our time shopping in what could have been an IKEA anywhere in the world. But China can’t let me have these little moments forever and you know it wasn’t long before something came along to ruin these outings. And so here’s where we see the nice young man who usually makes our ice cream cones with his index finger shoved up his nose all the way to the second knuckle. This is, of course, followed by him examining the results of this treasure hunt before turning to grab a cone and filling it with ice cream. Suffice it to say Team Erickson’s IKEA ice cream days were over. Oh, China. You don’t play fair.
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:
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.
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:
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!
True 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.
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.
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.
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,