Good Times at Family Mart

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:

  1. The bills arrive in the mail. The ayi checks the mail and then hides the bills for me to find somewhere around the house.
  2. 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!
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Catching Up

So, helloo….  Here in China many things have been happening.  But basically after Bali, it has been school, school, and more school.  Henry is chafing at the possibility that he might actually have to finish out the year at his current school.  Why he thought he would be moving to Lucas and Ava’s school in the middle of the year is anyone’s guess.  He has been telling his teachers since August that this week is really his last.  Enjoy his wit and wisdom while you can, suckers!  Henry isn’t going to be here for you to kick around much longer!  Of course, he eats those words every Monday morning as I march him right back to his classroom.  He has begun to parrot back to me all the things we tried to say so diplomatically when it became obvious that Ava would need to make a change last year.  “It just isn’t a good fit for me!” he will announce as he attempts, once again, to have a sick day.  No dice, little buddy.  Every day he asks how much longer until summer vacation and scowls when I inform him that it is a long, long way away.

Ava is thriving at her new school.  This is a big deal for her after last year and I am relieved.  So, so, so relieved.  Her most recent parent teacher conference involved me seeing her progress and then bursting into tears.  Ava was leading the conference so I was forced to explain that they were ”happy tears”.  I looked less ridiculous when her teacher started crying too.

And Lucas is, well, Lucas.  He likes his school but complains in the morning.  He likes riding the bus.  He does well in his classes.  He is playing the clarinet.  He loves the swim team.  He likes China but sometimes wishes we could move back to Maryland and settle back into our cozy yellow house.  But usually he is happy.

They are all speaking more Chinese than I ever imagined.  Henry mumbles to himself and sings Chinese songs.  Ava and Lucas argue over the pronunciation and meaning of characters.  All of them love correcting me, of course.  I am the Mandarin idiot around here, still struggling with the most basic things.  Lucas has needed to translate for me with workmen more times than I would like to admit.  Even Henry congratulated me a few weeks ago after a trip to the wet market.  It had been so smart of me to bring him along.  He had helped me so much with his “translating”.

I am still less settled in than the children, I think.  Being a tai tai* is less exciting than one might think.  I go to my Chinese class twice a week.  I spend an obscene amount of time procuring food for the family.  I go to the fabric market and the fake market and the flower market to buy more crazy things. I have lunch with my new friends.  I work on my never ending dissertation.  I try to wrap my head around daily life in China and usually fail miserably.  Why do Chinese people do that?  I have no idea.  Don’t ask me.  I am thinking about next year and how I want things to be.  I am considering going back to work but I am unsure of how that will pan out.  We will see.  So things are fine.  Things are good.  Thanks for asking.

*Tai tai means wife, but since I am White and unemployed by choice it is the equivalent of “ladies who lunch.” Yes, this is killing me.  Let’s never speak of it again.

More China Hijinks!

It has been brought to my attention that on this blog I often complain about Shanghai.  What?!  Me?  Complain?  Certainly that is not the case!  There is nothing to complain about over here.  The weather, for once, is reasonable.  Sunny, even!  Although I have been told the air quality is horrendous and we should not be outside breathing the toxic air.  I ignore these warnings!  I step outside and breathe with reckless abandon.  The construction noise from across the street has started to sound as soothing as birdsong.  Who can complain about the rhythmic hum of a jackhammer?  I am surrounded by an army of helpful folks who have absolutely no understanding of what I want or why I am even talking to them in the first place, but I am not complaining!

The management office is currently staffed with many of these helpful people.  They are very eager to answer the phone and then proceed to explain to me why something that should take five minutes is about to ruin my entire day.  Take for example, my current light bulb situation.  I have no problem changing light bulbs.  This is something I do all the time.  Never before have I paid someone to change light bulbs for me.  But China is different, and after spending far too much time searching for the light bulbs I needed and then being unable to change them without electrocuting myself, I had the management office send someone over.  I paid him 5rmb per bulb!  After I supplied the bulbs, naturally.  He was also kind enough to show me that in many cases the problem wasn’t my ineptitude, but our house’s faulty wiring.  He repeatedly pulled singed wads of wires out of the ceiling to demonstrate just how “bad” certain parts of the house happened to be.  He fixed these, and contorted himself and his ladder into various spaces until he had managed to replace seventeen bulbs.  Seventeen!  But the lights were working again so I am not complaining!

The bulbs in the living room require a special ladder.  When they put the drapes up, they actually built scaffolding inside the house to reach the top of the windows.  When the management office mentioned an extra charge for the “tall ladder” I was pretty sure that was what they were talking about.  I am willing to pay a fee for this, of course.  No complaining here!  But I need to provide the light bulbs and I have no idea which ones to buy.  They are up in the ceiling, you see, and they require a special ladder!  Can anyone from the management office tell me which bulbs to buy?  No.  Can they sell the bulbs to me?  No.  After multiple phone calls they find a solution.  What they can do is have the guy come, take down the bulb, hand it to me, and wait while I go and frantically try to find the bulb.  At some mystery store, apparently, because nothing thus far in my hours of searching resembles these crazy bulbs I see in my living room ceiling.  Then, when I return from my shopping excursion, he can climb the ladder again and put the new bulb in.  Very simple.

Well, I hate to complain, but this is not so simple.  This is ridiculous.  This made me yell at a nice little Chinese woman who was baffled that I could not understand why no one had saved the packaging from these light bulbs.  I cannot possibly be the first person ever to need these bulbs to be changed, can I?  Every townhouse in the compound has these light bulbs!  So now I am waiting.  I have arranged for the special ladder to come today and will pay for one of the workmen to go and buy the light bulb for me.  I will also pay the ladder fee and maybe overtime while we all wait for him to return with the coveted bulb.  I will then wrestle him to the ground to ensure I have the packaging that might help me when another one of these bulbs decides to stop working.  I can almost guarantee that another one will need replacing tomorrow.  Not that I am complaining or anything.

Wet Market!

Have I mentioned the wet market?  Have I mentioned my fear of dying due to some ailment that I might catch there?  Surely I have!   Since moving to Shanghai, I have been given many, many lectures about food safety in relation to the wet market and anything one might decide to buy there.  Henry’s school even gives a tour of the place that I have been told mainly consists of scaring people to death.  Of course, I have been making judgments based on what I have been told because I have never actually ventured out to the wet market myself.  Ahem.  Up until now, I have confined myself to the supermarket and the occasional fruit truck parked on my street in order to feed Team Erickson.  I must admit that the things I buy from the fruit truck are far superior to the things from the supermarket.  The cute little lady at the fruit truck helps me pick the best watermelon and gives me free stuff because I am a good customer.  The supermarket could never compete with that!  To top it off everything I buy at the supermarket is more expensive than the fruit truck.   And it frequently tastes like sawdust.

When we returned from our Bali trip, there was absolutely nothing edible in the house, not even of the sawdust variety.  Faced with the prospect of spending the day going to multiple supermarkets only to arrive home with nothing I decided to put off the inevitable by staying in bed as long as possible.  This only made the natives restless and more dangerous.  By the time I drug myself out of bed they were all “starving”.  A neighbor friend called to see if Lucas wanted to come over.  They had just arrived home as well and the mom invited me to come with her to do some food shopping.  Her driver was working (yeah!) so we could hit a few places and have it be relatively pain free.  She knew I hadn’t yet made it to the wet market.  She apparently goes twice a week and, in her words, “hasn’t died yet” so we decided that would be our first stop.

You know what?  It was awesome.  And not in the sarcastic way, it was really genuinely awesome.

In Baltimore, I love the farmers market.  Thirty minutes after Henry was born I was calling a friend, not to announce the happy news, but to tell him to make sure he went to the market to pick up our CSA share since I was going to be busy for the rest of the day.  I famously risked public scorn by packing up my two week old and heading to the Waverly farmers market.  My mother insisted on coming and sitting with him in the car, but the next Saturday I was there with him in the stroller so great is my love of the fresh veggies and fruit.  My children have been known, particularly in the summer, to turn up their noses at something “from the supermarket” when they suspect there is the possibility of really fresh stuff from the farmers market or our garden.

So why, oh why, did I not check out the wet market?  I have spent the past few years loving a farmers market that takes place under an overpass, but I was sure there was nothing for me at some urban veggie market in Shanghai?  For shame.  The wet market was actually very similar to the Baltimore market downtown only with fewer homeless people.  No one was selling designer dog treats, but there was pretty much everything else.    There was a slight smell as we walked in, but it wasn’t anything worse than Carrefour, and, let’s be honest, the underpass farmers market has its own odor at times, if you get my drift.  Would I buy meat there?  No.  But I never bought meat at the Baltimore farmers market, either.

I was surprised that the produce was really gorgeous and so cheap!  I bought bags and bags of stuff for what I would normally have paid for a few apples in the supermarket.  They had great tomatoes and all sorts of mystery items that I had never seen before.  I was able to walk around thinking about what looked the freshest and then decide what I could make rather than glumly considering whatever was available at the supermarket.  My friend showed me the places she normally frequents and I wandered around the aisles a bit.  Was it organic?  I have no clue because shopping there required using Mandarin and sometimes I had no idea what people were saying to me.  But all in all, it was a positive experience.  Can I make it there in a taxi once a week?  Not sure.  But I will have to find a way to make a trip or two to the wet market happen because so far, even in my tiny kitchen, cooking with nice vegetables is really making a difference.   Score one point for Shanghai, finally.

Back in the Swim

The kids are finally back in school and we are settling back in to life in Shanghai.  Ava is adjusting well to her new school- riding the bus with her big brother and making new friends.  Both big kids tried out for the school swim team which turned out to be a somewhat stressful endeavor.  At the end of last year, the kids decided it might be fun to be on the team, so I popped by the pool office to meet the coach and get more information.  I spoke with some of the other swim moms first to see how they felt about the time commitment and to see how their kids were enjoying the team experience.  I got only positive feedback so I happily made my way to the pool and introduced myself.  The coach seemed nice enough, but it took me only a few seconds to realize that his idea of swim team and my idea of swim team were two very different things.

In the United States, my kids swam for the neighborhood pool.  We had maybe four meets and the coaches were all teenagers.  Ok, some of them were “swimmers”.  Maybe they swam for their high school teams or they might even be swimming in college, but it wasn’t ever serious business.  I don’t think the season even lasted a month and a half.  For the very little ones who weren’t yet strong swimmers the coaches would even jump in with them and propel them forward like tiny little missiles, keeping one hand under to help them stay afloat.  But our neighborhood pool is only open in the summer and the hours aren’t great so there is a more serious pool where Mark swims.  Oh, and Michael Phelps swims there, too.  Maybe you’ve heard of him?  The greatest Olympic swimmer of all time?  Yeah, that guy.  My kids have taken swim lessons there and participated in stroke clinic on the weekend, but they don’t swim competitively there.  I have spent plenty of time hanging around watching the kids swim.  This is why I can tell you firsthand how Michael Phelps actually looks in his bathing suit.  It is the kind of sacrifice that mothers sometimes have to make.  Mark had been pushing for the kids to start year round competitive swimming or at least for us to change summer pool memberships so that his future Olympians could be on the Meadowbrook summer swim team.  He isn’t really one for sports, but when it comes to swimming he is worse than any peewee football dad could ever be.  I mean, are we aiming for the Olympics or not?! Can we all just get serious here!?

I had always put my foot down about year round competitive swimming.  After all, I was going to be the one running kids to and from practice.  And they seemed so little.  How could they know that swimming was really their thing?  It was a big time commitment for small people.  Mark argued that earlier was better and that if they hated it they could decide it wasn’t for them.  I was skeptical that he could let it go that easily.  He swam year round as a kid, even when he hated it, and I was sure he would expect the same from them.

But the school team seemed like a good idea.  It is after school so it requires very little running around.  There is even a bus that will bring them home after practice.  What could be simpler?  Two practices a week, a commitment for all Shanghai meets, and one meet outside of Shanghai each year.  So manageable.  But the school coach was clearly more in line with Mark’s way of thinking.  He needed to know specifics.  Where were we from?  Baltimore got him interested.  Had the kids competed before?  I played it cool.  I didn’t volunteer the light Roland Park Pool swim schedule.  Did they swim year round?  Um, sort of?  I mentioned Meadowbrook and that they swam there.  His face registered instant recognition.  Oh, he knew that pool.  Michael Phelps’ pool!  This was technically true, but I was immediately aware that he now thought the kids were competitive year round swimmers working under the supervision of the coaches and staff that had produced multiple Olympians.  Basically we were superstars!  We were nearly fish!

The coach demanded to know more.  What were their times?  Um, their times?  I had no idea.  No worries, he assured me.  Over the summer when they competed I would be able to compare their times with the ones on their website, right?  Sure I could!  Well, I could if they were going to be swimming on a team, which, they weren’t.  He found this troubling, but helpfully suggested that I could time them when I had them in the pool.  Yes, yes.  During one of our many training sessions I would whip out the old stopwatch!  Maybe I would just ask Michael Phelps to do that for me.

The coach could make no promises, because the team was competitive, but he liked that Ava had a late birthday.  And Lucas was swimming in PE so he could check out his skills the very next week.  They didn’t have spaces for everyone and some kids were going to be disappointed.  You see, not everyone makes the team.  Yes, this is elementary school.  Oh, and they needed to be proficient in all four strokes.  They were, right?   How was I supposed to answer that?  Could he be more specific about “proficient”?  I was suddenly concerned that we were biting of more than we could chew.

Over summer vacation we worked very little on swimming so that when we arrived in Shanghai the kids’ preparation was not unlike cramming for college finals twenty minutes before the start of the exam.  Mark had them in the pool on the weekends to fast track their flip turns and attempt to give them some more help with swimming butterfly.  It was going to be close, but it would have to be good enough.

The first day of tryouts arrived.  Lucas was decidedly positive but Ava was terrified.  She has had some confidence issues these past few months.  Issues that warrant their own post, but suffice it to say, not making the swim team might have been a giant blow to her already weakened self-esteem.  She considered not trying out at all.  Lucas tried to encourage her by telling her that she needed to believe in herself, but this didn’t calm her nerves and she left for school on tryout day in tears.

But she came home all smiles.  She powered through and was so proud of herself for finishing the tryouts without falling apart that she said it didn’t matter if she made the team or not.  Of course, I knew it probably did matter just a little bit, but she was so genuinely happy—so visibly excited to have had that little bit of success– that I really believed her.  It had been scary but she had done it and she had done her best.  Lucas was more concerned, however.  The other kids had been better than he had expected.  Some kids were trying out for the second time after being rejected last year and he wasn’t so sure his name was going to be there when they posted the team list.

We waited.  Ava claimed to have seen a list of 3rd grade swimmers with her name on it posted by the pool.  Lucas had no idea what she was talking about.  Surely they would make certain the parents knew, right?  When would they find out?  Lucas thought Wednesday, but he wasn’t sure.  We were on pins and needles.  Finally, we got emails on Monday.

They both made the team!  Michael Phelps is lucky he retired because I think there are a few new kids that just might blow him out of the water.  I mean, once they get those flip turns down.





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.

The Help

Ok, here comes the post where you all get very tired of hearing about how “horrible” it can be to live in China.  This is the post where you all throw your hands in the air and tell me to shut up about how difficult things are because this is where I start to tell you all about the ayi.  What is an ayi, you ask?  Well, be prepared to be astounded, because in Shanghai almost every expat has one and I am embarrassed that this includes me. One thing that I was hoping to love was the presence of lots of household help.  I haven’t written before about how much support people can have here for relatively little money, but it is not uncommon for families to have people to drive them around, watch their children, and clean their houses.  We don’t have a driver.  We don’t have a nanny.  But I do have an ayi. It pains me to say it, but I have a maid.  Three days a week, for six hours a day.  And I hate it.

One of the supposed perks of living in China is the availability of cheap domestic help and an ayi is basically a household helper.   It is assumed that as an expat family we would have one to help with the chores and children.  When I was touring schools one of the admissions people had even casually mentioned that my plan to wait to start working until the kids were settled was a good one because it would allow me to get my ayi “all trained” in the way I like things done before I left her in charge of the house.  This made me uncomfortable.  After all, if I have someone doing the house stuff, then what would I do all day?  Mark suggested that I get together with my friends to complain about how much I hate Shanghai.  That is what the other ladies around town do, apparently.  Very funny.  Some families have the ayi cook and clean and run all of the errands.   Some ayis do the shopping and pay the bills and pick the kids up from school.  If I was working this would be a dream, provided you find someone who works well with your family.  Some people have the ayi live with them 6 days a week and the larger expat houses have a small room off the kitchen for the ayi to sleep in.  Our house doesn’t have this, but really, we don’t need to have someone here at night.  Frankly, having someone here during the day is sometimes too much for me.

Our first ayi came 5 days a week from 8:30am to 2pm.  That was more than I had planned on, but that is how things worked out.  We were lucky in that the parent liaison at Henry and Ava’s school gave us the ayi’s number on our first day in Shanghai.  Helen had worked for another family and once they left China she needed to find another job.  We interviewed her and thought it might work so she started coming to our house the next week.  Helen speaks English–a big plus for me.  This is unusual, and it made her more expensive.  Of course, when I say expensive, it is all relative.  My rent here is expensive by any standards, but the ayi’s salary is really far from expensive.  I paid Helen 25rmb an hour.  That feels like robbery to me, but some people pay their ayi 15rmb per hour.  Basically, she was paid $4 an hour.  I will give you a second to recover from that.  Take your time.

I got used to having the ayi to help me with things when my lack of Chinese kept me from understanding something.  She could call people on the phone for me and babysit the kids.  She was able to help Ava with her Mandarin homework and to read labels to me to make sure I bought the right things. She started coming on Sundays so that Mark and I could go out without the kids.  It wasn’t perfect, but it was working.   Of course, this all came to an end when she took another job.  She opted to take a full time live-in position and recommended a friend of hers to take over.  A friend who speaks absolutely no English!  I said we’d try it and cut back to three days a week.  From the first day, we have had difficulty, um, communicating.  We pantomime and try to work things out, but often I will think we have established something only to find out she had no understanding of what I wanted.  It is frustrating.

The laundry is always a bone of contention. I have some pretty specific ideas about how laundry should be done, and these are impossible to convey without a common language.  Add to this the teeny tiny washer and dryer which happen to be located in the already cramped kitchen and you have a recipe for laundry disaster.  Things stay wet too long and stains don’t come out.  The ayi also puts the laundry away, but since we have mountains and mountains of children’s clothing here at all times she scrambles to finish all of it and then has to decide where she thinks things might belong.  I know this is supposed to be helpful.  I am sure that this is supposed to lessen stress for me and free up more time for other things, but it really only adds to the confusion in the house. I really don’t need someone to be here so much.  I hate having an extra person in the house and I hate feeling like I am being lazy as someone else scurries around frantically cleaning.  It has been a long time since I have had anyone to clean my house, and as much as I hate cleaning toilets, it is because I hate to have someone in my business.  I like knowing where everything is in my house, and please don’t tell anyone, but I like doing laundry.  I like organizing things.  It turns out I don’t like having it done for me.

I know how this sounds.  I should be appreciative of the extra help.  I should be loving all this cheap labor.  But I’m not.  I have heard horror stories about how other people treat their ayis.  There are “power struggles,” issues with childcare, and the obvious thievery that comes with paying someone so little and then putting them in charge of your house, sometimes even giving them a key.  Right now this isn’t helpful—it is more stressful.  The ayi is nice.  She is reliable.  She does a pretty good job cleaning.  But I don’t really need an ayi.

Not Really A Bargain

When we used to travel before kids, I loved going to the markets and bargaining for souvenirs.  It was fun to be able to spar with someone over the price of an item, especially if I walked away thinking I was getting a good deal.  Most of the places we were visiting had a very favorable exchange rate when we were running around with US dollars so, let’s be honest here, even if someone was charging me way above market value for something I was still spending very little money.  It wasn’t about my budget anyway; it was about the experience.

Mark was the worst at bargaining.  He didn’t like to haggle with people and he didn’t like to feel as if he was taking advantage.  When someone offered him a handmade item or some local treasure, he couldn’t stand to argue about the worth of the thing.  This used to infuriate me because he would make it that much more difficult for me to convince people to sell me things for cheap.  Traveling in Vietnam, he made friends with some of the local girls who sold all sorts of trinkets.  Once he knew their names there was no way he could bargain with them anymore.  Since I was laid up with a horrible case of food poisoning, he spent an entire afternoon paying full price for everything.  When I recovered enough to be back at the market for our last shopping trip before heading home, there was not a soul who would give me a deal on anything.  “Your husband bought these same things yesterday,” they all told me, “and he paid full price.”  Curse you, Mark!

Here in China things have changed dramatically.  Now that we have been here a little while I have come to dislike bargaining.  It really does lose something when you need to haggle over everything.  I was expecting it in the markets, but I have since learned that in China everything is negotiable.  When we were looking for housing the real estate agent told us that he would negotiate the price and any extra things we wanted.  You ask for the moon and then you settle for a little less.  The same goes for all sorts of other things as well.  When I signed up for my language course, they presented me with the paperwork and it didn’t occur to me to bargain.  When I got home Mark told me that it was expected.  At the language school?!  Yep.  I could have gotten a better deal if I had asked for one.

Mark has become a champion negotiator after his time in China.  When we go to the fakes market, he is all business.  The key, apparently, is walking away.  This works well when he is alone, but if the kids are with us this is less effective.  They haven’t figured out that they should at least pretend not to care.  When they see something that they like they beg and plead.  This does not help negotiations.  You are supposed to start ridiculously low, but the children find this unfair and will frequently side with the seller and help to drive the price up.  When shopping on their own they will often pull out all their money so that the seller can see exactly how much they have to spend.  These things drive Mark crazy but we have begun to use it to our advantage with a sort of good cop/bad cop routine.  While the kids beg for some horrible plastic toy, Mark will walk away, disgusted.  I shrug and defer to him.  Who am I to cross my domineering husband?  Everyone knows Mark wears the pants.  Well, that’s what they think in the market anyway.  Surprisingly, people will chase after us and give us our final price.  Score!  I know you will all be jealous when you find out how little we paid for all our fancy laser pointers and spinning plastic light up tops.  I have a house full of chopstick sets, off brand Nerf guns, and remote control helicopters all purchased at rock bottom prices.  You should all be very jealous indeed.

Next Year

Next year I am going to change schools because we think Yew Chung isn’t the right fit for me.  So I am going to go to SAS which I hope will be a better fit for me.  Just to let you know, I’m not really lovin’ YCIS.  It is sort of an ok school, but it does a lot of work that I’m not really used to.  Everybody thinks that the work I do is easy but for me it is not.  I would be fine if I had to stay there but it just isn’t really the right place for me.

I will miss my friends there and they have already said they will miss me, but still, I have to do what is right for me.  I can have play dates and sleepovers whenever I want, but for school I have to do what is best for me, not what is best for everyone else.

I hope that SAS will be a better fit, but if it isn’t… there are always other schools!


Dictated to Gwen by Ava

Welcome to Erickson Pharmacy

Ever since I went on the hospital tour, I have been doing everything possible to avoid taking anyone to the doctor.  We have been fairly lucky—no emergencies, yet—and the illnesses around here have been minor.  The kids have had colds, of course, and Lucas had an asthma flare up that made me realize that we didn’t bring enough of his medicine.  That problem was solved with a few phone calls home, grandparent involvement, and a fortuitous trip to the US by one of Mark’s colleagues.

Our relative good health was bound to end, though.  It was only a matter of time before we would have to venture out and try one of the pediatricians here in Shanghai.  Our first incident occurred when Lucas came downstairs after his bath and announced that he had chicken pox.  All of the kids have been vaccinated so this would be highly improbable, but the bumps all over his chest did look suspiciously like the pox.  They were spreading, and a quick glance at Google images had me convinced that he might be right.  There had been a recent note from one of the schools about students coming down with chicken pox, so when Henry and Ava also had the red bumps, I panicked and called our pediatrician in Baltimore.  With the time difference, I was lucky enough to be able to reach him during his morning call time and catch him before he left for the office.  How great is that, by the way, that you can call him in the morning to chat before he goes to work?

Dr. Bodnar was extremely patient with me as he explained that there was no way we could have chicken pox.  Highly improbable.  When I pressed for a diagnosis he told me that he couldn’t say without seeing them and, obviously, that wasn’t going to happen.  We would need to see someone here.  Erg.  So off we went in the morning to a new pediatrician.

The office visit was uneventful, really.  The pediatrician was fine and the kids liked her though I missed home and the ease of our old routine.  They were able to fit all three kids in at the same time, for better or worse, and they ruled out chicken pox pretty quickly.  It turned out the kids had hot tub folliculitus.  In other words, we had caught something from bacteria in the clubhouse hot tub.  Gross!  Even worse, we had invited a friend to the pool and she had the same rash.  Who wants a play date with the Ericksons?  Our pool has bacteria!  Come on over!

They gave us some antibiotic cream which we never used since it all cleared up in a matter of days.  Even more exciting, the doctor told me that they keep Lucas’ asthma medicine in stock.  Hooray!  Would we like some?  Of course we would!  Here is where China is vastly different from home.  The pharmacy is located in the doctor’s office.  This is lucky because it is usually in the main part of the hospital and this would have been very hard to navigate without reasonable spoken Mandarin.  The doctor wrote the prescriptions and then they were filled one desk over.  You wait for them to check you out and to pay any fees and then you get your medicine.  Because few things are available over the counter, people will stock up whenever they go to the doctor on things like pain relievers and cold medicine.

Since we were stocking up, I had several boxes to pick up at the pharmacy counter.  Once I got there the pharmacist had a lengthy discussion with me about how to mix the medicine before Lucas used it.  What?  Mix it?  I didn’t understand.  He explained that none of it was mixed so I would need to measure the saline and then the medicine and then put it in the nebulizer.  Ok… I am not at all comfortable with that, but if this is the way things work then I can roll with it.  Apparently, I am the pharmacist’s assistant!  He has an awful lot of faith in me if he is just going to let me mix things at home, but apparently his job is only to hand me the boxes.  The doctor had made it seem so straightforward.  She hadn’t mentioned that I needed to do more than just open the package.

The same thing happened when Henry had to go back to the doctor the next week for a possible ear infection.  An ear infection that I didn’t believe he had because sometimes I am an awesome mother.  Honestly, he had no fever and he was skipping around and jumping in the air and only occasionally complaining that his ear sort of hurt.  So off we went again and once again I stood befuddled at the pharmacy counter.  I had heard that in China they preferred IV antibiotics and that had made me wary of taking the kids in for things like an ear infection.  The pediatrician thought this was funny.  Of course they had oral antibiotics!  We would start with our old friend amoxicillin!  She only had capsules, but that would work out fine!

Cut to the pharmacy again where I stood rereading the directions on the box of antibiotic capsules.  Lucky I had read them at all since I thought I was just going to be giving Henry a capsule or two every so often.  The directions told me to mix the contents of two capsules with 20 ml of water and to give Henry 14 ml twice a day.  What?  20 ml to mix but 14 ml per dose?  Why didn’t the pharmacist just mix the damn stuff for me?  The pediatrician had said we could mix it with juice or something to get him to take the capsules, but the box said I needed to mix it before I even tried to make it edible.  I asked the pharmacist and he blinked at me several times before answering.  Since Henry didn’t weigh enough to just take two full capsules, I needed to open the capsules and mix their contents with liquid and then take out the correct dosage for his weight.  His job really was just to hand me the boxes!  He even handed me a bottle with the label “simple syrup” on it and instructed me that I could use this to make the medicine taste better.  Sure thing, don’t worry about me!  No, no, you just sit there and finish your tea!  I can do all this “pharmacy” stuff when I get home!

So for the past few days I have been attempting to mix a stiff cocktail of antibiotic goodness for Mr. Doodle.  I have begun mixing it with chocolate syrup but I have no idea if the doses I am giving him are right.  I assume they are close enough because he has stopped complaining about his ear.  Just wait until I get a chance to work my magic on Lucas!  Who knew I was such a good pharmacist?