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.

Having A China Day

Around here when things aren’t going your way and it all gets to be too much, we say we are “Having a China Day”.  In casual conversation with a neighbor or expat friend if I say I am “having a China day” they know immediately what I am talking about.  Maybe there was a problem with your refrigerator and you couldn’t manage to get someone to fix it.  Maybe you spent all day trying to grocery shop and ended up with nothing to show for it.  Maybe you just couldn’t get over your irritation with, well, everything.  That is a China day.

I am having one today.  There is no real reason.  Just generally being annoyed with all the extra effort things take and my lack of progress in getting things done.  It is like swimming in molasses to accomplish small tasks and small tasks are all that get accomplished around here.  Yes, I went to the grocery store and the gym.  But we have nothing for dinner because I only went to one store.  And, frankly, going to the gym and the grocery store should not be major life milestones now.  I tried to get some dissertation work done, but was stymied by the ayi’s need to vacuum and then mop directly underneath my feet while slamming into the furniture.  Yes, she was cleaning the house while I sat there, but this only added to my frustration.  How ridiculous is it to be angry at someone as they do your work for you?  It is pretty ridiculous.  You don’t need to tell me.  Still, having someone in the house all the time adds fuel to a China day.  Basically I am never alone, which for me makes for a high level of frustration.  Shanghai is crowded—not exactly the easiest place to find a quiet spot—and I sometimes would like to have my house be a place of solitude and silence.  This is hard to accomplish with three children and a Chinese lady hanging around all the time.  Add a friend or two and I can be positively crazy acting.

But luckily, these days always pass.  Things don’t suddenly get rosy, but they usually look better after I sleep on it.  Or have a stiff drink.  Or both.  Check back tomorrow and the story might be different.

Back in Business!

The internet is now up and running in the Shanghai house!  That was a long few days, wasn’t it?  Maybe not for everyone else, but being cut off from the outside world certainly took a toll on the Ericksons here in the China outpost.  Once the wireless was enabled yesterday all five of us plugged in.  Now we are back to fighting about our ipads and ignoring each other.  But so much has happened since we arrived!  School started, I toured some scary hospitals, and I spent an enormous amount of time at the grocery store.  We will need to get busy with some posts to fill you in on the drama and disappointment of life in Shanghai.

On Bringing the Dog

So far there has been lots of chatter about the decision to bring the dog to China. There have been some vocal opponents and some serious supporters, but in the end bringing the dog was something that we thought we really needed to do. Yes, I have heard that they eat dogs in China and, yes, there are restrictions on the number of dogs you can have and some rules about when those dogs can be out. Maggie is a big dog, around 65 pounds, and she is a bit of a barker so she isn’t going to fit in well in China. She is also black which I am told might make her seem more menacing to the locals. She is basically a Baltimore street dog– a lab and pit bull mix, we think– and she is perfect for living in the city if you want people to be afraid to come too close to your porch if they don’t know you. And I for one, greatly appreciate that in a dog.  She can look scary, but she is great with kids. We have had her since she was 6 weeks old when our babysitter’s husband found a box of puppies at a city construction site. Yes, someone had dumped a box of puppies and the only one that survived is Maggie. It is expensive to have her come with us, but Henry stood firm in his assertion that without the dog he would be staying in the United States. He had only two requests and those included the shipping of his bed (not happening, but we did send his quilt, pillows, and sheets) and the necessity of his dog. It is a hassle, and I know that it is going to be me dealing the most with the dog issues, but in the expat compounds a big dog isn’t that unusual. We have a place to walk her and the kids might really need a good doggie snuggle those first few weeks in our new home. I think I might be getting some doggie snuggles myself when I need them.

So, the low down on how this dog shipping thing will allegedly work… Maggie travels separately and arrives after us. I have had to buy an ENORMOUS travel crate for her and she will be taking a pet friendly airline. She goes to Europe first and gets a chance to stretch her legs and have a snack, maybe hit the bars in Amsterdam, and then takes another flight to get to Shanghai. While the long flight was a big concern, we were more concerned with the mandatory 7 day government quarantine that all dogs are supposed to endure when they come into the city. With the company we are using they are allowed to keep her for 24 hours at their facility and then return her to us. All in all she may have a better trip than the kids.

The pet relocation company is very serious about keeping you informed. I know people worry about their pets and that it was all meant to reassure me, but I had to work really hard to keep the sarcasm to a minimum.  My first agent there made it clear that I could track the dog online the entire time she was traveling and had access to his cell phone “24 hours a day, 7 days a week”. I love the dog– but I am not that kind of pet owner. I am also going to be pretty busy taking care of the three little people who will be traveling with me. They, of course, might feel differently and need to make several late night phone calls to check on Maggie Moodles.  I hope our agent doesn’t mind speaking with Henry.

Hopefully, the dog will arrive safe and sound in Shanghai and we will all live happily ever after. You can stop laughing now. Of course there will be a glitch, but maybe, just maybe, it will just be something minor. Keep your fingers crossed. And you have to admit, it makes a great story. The dog goes from being dumped in the trash to traveling the world or, as some writers I know suggested, From Dumpster to Diplomat. She will have two stamps in her passport!  (No she doesn’t really get a passport.)  The kids will be chronicling the adventures of Maggie for sure. Unless it is from Dumpster to Disaster… or Deportation…

Here We Go!

The countdown is on!  Our plane departs for Shanghai on December 28th and we are in full panic mode.  Suffice it to say that while an international move can be stressful, this one is proving to be more difficult than expected.  When I say that nothing is going as planned, well…  Maybe a little background first.  Mark and I have lived abroad before, both in Paris and Sydney.  We loved the chance to experience another country and culture in such a profound way.  And wouldn’t it be fun with kids?  It would, right?  Of course, it would be a great experience for everyone!  There is no arguing with the fact that it will be a time that the kids will never forget, but now that we are actually doing it?  Mommy is stressed.  And everyone knows it.

You see, the kids– three of them– have never lived anywhere but Baltimore, Maryland, USA.  They like to travel, but they also like their house, and their school, and their friends.  This idea of moving around the world and changing everything is both exciting and terrifying for them.  And they don’t really have a choice.  Enter the mommy guilt.  How do you make the right choices for an international move so that your kids get to have more of the excitement and wonder of the experience and less of the fear and trepidation of the unknown?  If you figure that out please tell me.  The sooner the better.  Apparently, my current method of freaking out about schools and housing is not impressing the powers that be.  We have had drama on all fronts, but more about that later.  What you need to know now is that we are up to our eyeballs in packing and logistics.  Did I mention that my husband has already moved to Shanghai?  Did I mention we are bringing the dog?  Yeah. Get ready.