Henry the Kung Fu Master

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

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


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.

Explorations: Chinese Printed Blue Nankeen Exhibition Hall

My friend Shanghai Sue is lucky enough to have a driver.  Getting around in Shanghai isn’t too difficult by taxi or subway, but having the chance to tag along with her when she has the driver makes all that work just to get from place to place seem like such effort.   I miss being able to hop in my car and run a few errands without having each stop become a major production.  Using the driver is more complicated than driving yourself—you need to plan ahead and make arrangements that include someone else being part of everything—but I don’t think I would want to try driving in Shanghai.  For now I am content to let Sue be in charge of transportation every now and then.

Today’s stop—the former French Concession (you have to say former or face the wrath of the Chinese government) and the Chinese Printed Blue Nankeen Exhibition Hall.

Sue has relatives that are into fabric and she wanted to check out the Chinese style indigo batik.  There is allegedly a museum with all the information you would need about the process of making the cloth and the history of nankeen in China, but we never managed to get to any museum.  Maybe because the lane we had to walk down to find the place looked like this.

We pushed past all the laundry and wandered down the alley.  Sue’s driver had a difficult time finding the lane we needed so there was always that sliver of possibility that we were completely in the wrong place.  There had been a sign that seemed to say we were headed in the right direction, but when the alley got extremely narrow and the only indication that we should keep going was a handwritten sign all in characters, well, I was tempted to give up.

Sue:  “How is your reading these days?”

Me:  “Not great.  Poor.”

Sue:  “Hmm.”

At one point Sue tried a random door hoping we weren’t about to burst in on someone’s afternoon bath.  Luckily, the door was locked and we avoided arrest for breaking and entering.

Suddenly we were in someone’s back yard with the most beautiful laundry you have ever seen hanging on the line.  After some confusion with where exactly the entrance might be, we were in!  We had found it! 

They have beautiful things, but I resisted making any purchases right before we leave for vacation.  Maybe next time…

Changle Lu 637, House 24, Shanghai

Oriental Land!

A name like that just screams good times, doesn’t it?  When one of Mark’s colleagues suggested a trip to Oriental Land I will admit I was skeptical.  What kind of place lets people call it “oriental land”?  The website promised carnival rides and laser tag, an actual aircraft carrier, and a giant bubble that lets you walk on water.   Hmmm…  so many possibilities.  We started out Sunday morning by heading to Mark’s office.  Chris was spearheading the trip and had generously worked out transportation so that we could all ride together for the hour long trip.  All of Mark’s colleagues came with us—they are only an office of four—and Lilly brought her kids so the van was full.  It was raining, unfortunately, but Oriental Land promised lots of indoor activities.  Rain or no rain we were still going.

Welcome to Oriental Land!

Once inside we rented two of those awesome multi-seater bikes to tool around the park.  The rain had stopped and the day was starting to heat up.  Mark was unlucky and ended up in the bike with all the kids.  This didn’t stop them from racing the bike full of adults, though, and any time we got in the bikes there was mayhem and danger.  At one point Chris was yelling “Make way!  Make way!” in Chinese as we barreled down a hill trying to catch and pass the children.  There was a fair amount of taunting and cheating going on and unsuspecting groups of people along the road kept having to scatter to avoid us.  Mark later commented that in the United States there would have been rules against our bike races in the park.  Thanks, China!  We love how you throw caution to the wind when it comes to bodily harm.

We found the aircraft carrier and the water bubble thing.  The actual bubble wasn’t there, but they had these inflatable tubes instead.  The kids didn’t seem to care that the tubes looked way less exciting than the photos from the website.

We checked out the rides and Henry was devastated to discover that he wasn’t tall enough to ride the giant swings.  The fit abruptly ended when he learned that he was tall enough for many of the other rides—rides that involved shooting.  He shot clowns and penguins and various other defenseless things until we decided to move on.

Henry killed all of these guys.

Probably the highlight of Oriental Land for the kids was laser tag.  Lucas has played laser tag a few times, but my other kids haven’t.  Henry has, of course, been dying to play and was thrilled when we pulled up to the laser tag “training ground” and they said there was no age requirement.  Adults could play on a course with more obstacles, but kids would have to play in a more open area.  Surprisingly this didn’t cause any disappointment and they all gladly suited up to run around and shoot each other.  Mark and Chris bravely agreed to participate while the ladies “supervised”.  Somehow the game became adults against kids and the rule of 3 lives maximum was quickly forgotten as the kids ran to the guy in charge of the equipment and begged for more chances.  They played until they were covered in dirt and completely sweaty.

Chris is forced to surrender!

Along the way I managed to end up in the bike with Mark and the kids.  This made us the blondest, whitest bicycle that Oriental Land had ever seen.  People had been staring the entire time we were at the park, but now they started calling out.  “Hello!” random groups would shout at us as we drove by.  One teenager pointed at us and said, “Cool!” as we passed.  People took photos.  We were one of the best attractions at Oriental Land.  Lilly’s daughter was riding with us and she couldn’t get over the attention we were receiving.  “Who was that?” she would ask when someone called out to us.  She was always surprised that they were complete strangers.  Her mother is Chinese, so she gets less of the staring and pointing.  “I couldn’t live this way!” she eventually blurted out.  She was tired of being part of our rock star celebrity group.

We don’t know this guy.

We ate lunch at a restaurant not far from the park.  It was Chris’ recommendation, and we were able to sit by the water and have some Chinese food.  When we arrived, there was the usual waving, pointing, and staring.  Someone was yelling at us from across the water.  Everyone was convinced that people were saying “Henry”.  No, no, I insisted.  After all, I had just spent a good deal of time explaining about how all those friendly folks were just random people.  Then I looked across the little river and saw the family of one of Henry’s classmates!  We really did know those people!

Shanghai– the world’s largest small town

After buying some fancy lollipops, we all piled back in the van sticky, sweaty, and tired.  The kids had loved the trip even though we really saw only a fraction of what Oriental Land had to offer.  Not sure if we will make it back, but if we ever need a good dose of water sports combined with shooting stuff, now we know where to go.

Mama Liked the Circus

Wednesday night we went to the circus.  Mark’s parents were set to leave China the next afternoon, so we thought this would be an interesting way to cap things off.  My in-laws had been to the circus a few years ago in Beijing and remembered that it was in a nice theater and people had dressed up.  I prefer to err on the side of civility so I forced the kids to get “snazzy” despite their loud protests.  My father-in law chaffed a bit at the new family dress code and Mark decided that it didn’t apply to him and put on jeans.  All three children pointed this out to me as soon as he came down the stairs.

Of course, once we got to the circus there were plenty of people in their jeans and t-shirts.  The family in front of us had a handful of teenagers all in variations of the same sweatpant based outfit.  One of them sat slouched in her seat with her feet propped up on the handrail in front of her.  Outside the theater had been extremely crowded with scores of tour buses unloading.  Guides with red flags on long sticks had been directing tourists to the entrance of the performance.  Inside however, there were plenty of empty seats.  People were making use of their cameras even though there were plenty of signs reminding people that photography was strictly prohibited.  At least one of these shutterbugs continued to snap away once the performance started until a man came through section by section with an illuminated sign to reiterate the “no pictures” policy.

In Baltimore, we have taken the kids to the circus several times.  We have even seen them march the elephants down to Lexington Market and feed them lunch when the circus comes to town.  The kids loved that when we were able to go.  Who can resist a bunch of clowns surrounding elephants smashing watermelons?  The kids want to taste all the circus food.  One year Lucas lost a tooth in his funnel cake and I had to hold it in a soggy napkin until the performance was over.  Good times.

The Chinese circus isn’t really like the one we see at home.  First, there aren’t any animals.  Well, at this circus there was a horse in one act but no lions or elephants.  I actually like this.  I am not so sure circus animals are happy animals and it had started to bother me the last few times we went in Baltimore.  Roll your eyes if you must, but having fewer animals relieves me of some of the guilt I feel about my circus participation.

The stars of the Chinese circus are the human performers anyway.  Henry was enthralled from the moment the lights dimmed.  He kept letting out this astonished little “wow” every few seconds.  There were all sorts of contortionist and acrobats all set to an old Shanghai theme.  Most of the stunts were just daring enough to make me uncomfortable.  There were people being catapulted onto each other’s shoulders.  There were those guys in the big wheel running and flipping around, occasionally acting like they might fall (or maybe actually losing their balance, I am never sure).  They had eight or nine guys on motorcycles riding around in the giant metal ball.  I always tell myself that they are professionals, that they won’t turn that millimeter to the right that brings the whole thing crashing down.  This is the only way I can watch.  Apparently, in the previous night’s performance one of the motorcyclists did crash and the show had to be stopped.  I am glad I didn’t know this before we went.  That would have made me close my eyes instead of appreciating all of the people constantly floating down from the ceiling.

They had a ten minute intermission and Henry was convinced that the show was over and it was time to go home.  He lobbied hard for us to pack it up and grab a taxi.  I told him people weren’t leaving, but that they were going to the bathroom.  Mark shot me a look.  He apparently didn’t want to take Henry on a tour of the theater toilets.  Henry then decided he was dying of thirst and spent the remainder of the show vacillating between amazement over the circus and pleading his case for a bottle of water.  He survived through the final act but just barely.  Once it was over, slips of paper with fortunes written on them fell from the ceiling like confetti.  The kids scooped them up and shoved them deep in their pockets.  Lucas read a few of his and commented that some of the translations made no sense.  Some of them really were horrible interpretations of what might have been expressed in the Chinese characters.  “Time waits for no man” he read.  “See?  That makes no sense.”  Oh, Lucas.  That one actually does, kiddo.  That one makes perfect sense.

The Circus

It was one of the coolest experiences of my life.  I never thought someone could be that flexible– especially boys!  I always thought girls were more flexible than boys.  The trapeze would be the part that I could do the most of.  There was a huge crowd and my mom thought we had to dress fancy.  So she made us dress fancy!  I really like the acrobats who could do handstands while their legs were twisted up in knots.  It was one of the most exciting experiences of my life, life, life, life, LIFE!!!!!!!!!

Dictated to Gwen by Ava

Bike Riding

I like riding bikes.  My friend Kienan gave my bike to me.  I ride my bike down to the sidewalk.  I’m going to take my training wheels off soon.  I ride it down to the crosswalk.  I rode it down to the park once and played.  That’s all.

Dictated to Gwen by Henry

Century Park

Mark’s parents are visiting this week and now that the kids are out for spring break we are filling the days with some exploring.  Today my mother-in-law and I took the kids for a stroll through Century Park while Mark and his dad took care of some work things.  Century Park is walking distance from our house, but I will admit that I have never even gotten close to the gates until today.  When the weather is pitiful, the last thing on my mind is walking through a park especially when it only means coming home with wet shoes.  But today the weather was gorgeous so grandmom scored some free tickets from the hotel (thanks again, Kerry Pudong!) and we went for a walk.  From the beginning Lucas had only one singular purpose and that was to find and commandeer a paddle boat.  I had heard that the park had paddle boats, but I wasn’t all that interested in putting all three children on a boat in the middle of the meandering river.  Still, Lucas was determined.  He started his nagging from the moment we entered the gate and was relentless until the very end.  We didn’t ride the paddle boats, mainly because there weren’t any to be found, but we did manage to walk around a small section of the park and for once I remembered to bring the nice camera! 

Century Park is one of the largest in Shanghai and it was a big draw for us when we decided to move to this side of the river.  Unfortunately, we had thought we could bring the dog into the park and that it would be a great place for running her off the leash.  Alas, it is not that kind of park.  I think dogs are not even allowed in despite the fact that one of our neighbors allegedly marches in with his dog all the time.  His dog is small, and I think he has been lucky so far.  Maggie would most certainly cause a commotion if we tried to sneak her in. 

Henry was angling for a playground, but there wasn’t one in the area we explored today.  The park is massive and I am sure on future trips we will discover that there is much more to see and do.  Later in the day one of Ava’s friends told us that there is most certainly a playground in Century Park.  I swear I wasn’t trying to trick my children when I told them there wasn’t one!

We were there during some sort of school trip because there were tons of school kids in their uniforms.  Those kids were keen to practice their English with us through the age old art of yelling random phrases at unsuspecting people.  We were greeted with not only “hello” today, but also with “good afternoon” and “nice to meet you”.  All of these required the same amount of interaction.  My mother-in-law was sure they were a sports team, but there were way too many of them for that.  Do Chinese kids have school on Saturday?  Would they have a school trip right before the upcoming holiday?  Not sure.  So many things to check on in the next few days!  We did see plenty of people renting bicycles built for two (and three, apparently, often filled with careening members of the previously mentioned school group), and lots of these crazy pedal contraptions that look like rickshaws.  Check out this kid riding in the back with his bubble gun. 

The weather also brought out a few groups for wedding photos.  We saw these two couples in multiple places in the park.  Today wasn’t the wedding, but just a photo day for these guys, apparently. 

We managed to trick grandmom into buying bubbles AND ice cream.  The initial plan was to browse, but once I wavered a bit the kids smelled opportunity.  It didn’t take long to have them all covered in chocolate and attacking unsuspecting people with their bubble arsenal.  You know that if there is ice cream then we will be back.