Smuggler’s Blues

Written last week on the plane ride back to sweet, sweet shopping freedom…

Will one day be used for blackmail...

Will one day be used for blackmail…

We’re on our way back to the USA for the summer. This year has been a little light on postings. I apologize. Apparently, working full time means less time to get finished things onto the blog. I do have quite a few things started and abandoned that could perhaps still make an appearance. I have big writing goals for the summer. I always have these, of course. Maybe this year I will be able to meet some of them! Keep your fingers crossed.

But for now, an answer to a burning question! People often want to know what we bring home in the summer and the kinds of things we smuggle back in our suitcases to Shanghai. Maybe “smuggle” is the wrong word since China has never really bothered to investigate our suitcases in all the times we have gone back and forth. When we lived in Australia, I used to get stopped all the time and have things confiscated. Ranch dressing mix never made it in. It has dried milk powder in it and for the Aussies milk products of any kind were a no-no. My bags always got a thorough search.  Going from the USA to China, TSA always goes through the bags as well.  We get those nice little notes that inform us someone has looked through our stuff.  I am sure they wonder what the hell we are doing, bringing what must look like a crazy amount of Target with us as we head to the Middle Kingdom.  The Chinese probably care about some things coming in, but my ever-growing list of must haves isn’t anything they are interested in wasting their time finding. China is a busy, busy place. China has no time to worry about my suitcases full of contraband.  They wave us through every single time.

To get ready for vacation, I always calculate my bags and their weight. But let’s be honest, I am only really concerned with weight on the trip back to Shanghai. I can bring home three 70 pound bags and so can Mark. The kids only get one 50 pound bag each, but still this means I can bring back 9 bags! So what do I bring from China to the USA? Empty suitcases, of course! I put bags inside bags to be sure I have enough of them for the return journey to Shanghai. I should also add that on the way back to China, those bags are filled to within half a pound of their maximum weight. Sometimes the agent checking us in will clap in appreciation.  My skills are that impressive.  So what’s in the bags?  All this…

Things I Bring Back from the United States in No Particular Order:

  1. Peanut Butter
  2. Breakfast Cereal!
  3. Oatmeal
  4. Vitamins
  5. Any and all over the counter medicine
  6. Crackers and Triscuits
  7. Rotel
  8. Lotion
  9. Shampoo
  10. Dog Treats
  11. Granola Bars, Nutragrain Bars, Luna Bars
  12. Dry Onion Soup Mix
  13. Dry Hidden Valley Ranch Dressing Mix
  14. Mayonnaise
  15. Electronic Components for Mark
  16. Spices
  17. Vanilla Extract
  18. Laundry detergent
  19. Chocolate Chips
  20. Shoes that fit for me
  21. Cheap clothes for the kids
  22. Shoes for the kids
  23. Make up
  24. Knitting Supplies
  25. Protein Powder
  26. Mio Drink Drops
  27. Cocoa (for baking)
  28. Cocoa Mix (for the kids to drink)
  29. Panko Bread Crumbs
  30. Cornmeal
  31. Grits
  32. Dog Toys and Bones
  33. Ingredients for anything I want to make for Thanksgiving
  34. American Halloween candy
  35. Halloween costumes
  36. Dog medicine (Heartworm and Flea and Tick)
  37. Cat stuff
  38. Asthma medication
  39. Toothpaste
  40. Tampons
  41. Books for the school’s library
  42. Magic Erasers
  43. Dishwashing detergent
  44. BBQ Sauce (Sweet Baby Ray’s)

Yes, I know that many of these things are MADE IN CHINA.  The dirty little secret here is that those things are made for export.  You cannot buy them in China.  Many of the other things I am hauling internationally are available in China.  In order to buy them, however, I need to get a second job or take out a loan.  It is very hard to just let that go when you are standing in Target and see something priced at $3 knowing that in Shanghai I would pay so so so much more.  IMG_1398

Exhibit A

Exhibit A

Before you judge, I would like to mention that people we know bring in much crazier things.  Entire blocks of cheddar cheese, for example.  Not the small ones, mind you, but the ones from the deli. They buy the entire block and shove it in their suitcases. Someone else we know brought in a WHOLE LAMB. Yes, that’s what I said. They like lamb and they don’t trust the meat in China. While I was surprised that this managed to be something one could bring in a suitcase, I was also a little jealous that I hadn’t thought of it first. Sometimes desperation will do that to you. If you have a baby you will certainly smuggle baby formula and diapers. Luckily, I am past that stage so instead I have considered bringing back Maryland crab cakes, frozen veggie sausage, and frozen biscuits. What is left of my good sense stops me. For now. But you never know. If you happen to see us in the airport and we have a suitcase that looks a little, um, leaky, please just ignore us.



Fire Chicken

This November we had our first Thanksgiving here in Shanghai.  I would love to tell you that it was a lovely experience filled with heartwarming memories, but it was not exactly the warmest or fuzziest holiday we have ever celebrated.  Let me start by confessing that Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.  I love all the cooking and the preparations for the big meal.  I can’t think of anything better than planning Thanksgiving dinner and then getting to share it with people I love.  In the United States, Thanksgiving is also the holiday where my side of the family gets together.  The past few years my brothers and my sister and I have all made an effort to spend Thanksgiving together, bringing our spouses and children.  And not just Thanksgiving Day, we spend a long weekend or the entire week hanging out together.  The cousins fight to the death and my parents have to endure hours of revelations about what actually happened when we were all teenagers.  I am sure they appreciate that.  The past few years have seen the addition of a few friends to the mix and I always look forward to Thanksgiving week.

Of course, when you live in China you can’t really just head home for Thanksgiving.  Henry didn’t even have one day off from school.  Lucas and Ava were given Friday so that they had a long weekend, but it still did not compare to the week of Thanksgiving festivities that I have decided is necessary.  The whole holiday got off to a rocky start when Mark announced that he wanted to have Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday since that was the actual holiday.  He wouldn’t hear of moving dinner to Friday or Saturday even when I argued that in France and Australia we had always celebrated on the weekend.  The kids had school!  He had to work!  He upped the ante by then declaring that he would like to invite his entire staff over so that they could experience American Thanksgiving.  And how many people is that, you ask?  Oh, 60 or so.  Sixty people eating Thanksgiving dinner in our townhouse with one unpredictable oven and my dorm size refrigerator?!  Oh, how I laughed.  This only made things worse because, apparently, he was serious.

Normally I make Thanksgiving dinner for about thirty people.  It isn’t that difficult when you have multiple refrigerators, a giant freezer, two ovens, and an arsenal of American grocery stores.  China is not like that.  Finding ingredients is time consuming and expensive and my kitchen is far from efficient or comfortable.  Could I organize dinner for sixty in the United States?  Sure.  I know where to get things.  I could plan ahead and even get some of it catered.  Here in China I couldn’t fit sixty people in my house comfortably even if by some miracle I could get the necessary food purchased and then cooked.  And catering?  Oh, that is possible.  But for sixty people the cost would have been outrageous.  Only certain people in China find themselves in need of Thanksgiving dinner.  I think you can guess which people I am talking about.  The Chinese are not stupid.  They know an opportunity when they see one.

After I shot down the staff Thanksgiving idea, Mark was less than helpful with the preparations.  He was also unaware of the actual date for the Thanksgiving holiday this year and as a result spent precious time goading me.  He basically squandered a week on teasing.  I don’t think he really regrets this.  Like a busy little squirrel, I had planned ahead and brought some of the ingredients for our dinner from the US when we were home for the summer.  I brought things I had trouble finding or that were exceptionally expensive.  My list included:  cornmeal, Karo syrup, jellied cranberry sauce in the can, dried sage, brining stuff for the turkey, and Crisco.  Next year I will need to add plain canned pumpkin to that because I was too lazy to cook an actual pumpkin after spending so much time on the other things.  Even with some things in the pantry, I spent a few days shopping.  Which brings me to Thanksgiving Day.

I found frozen turkeys in a few places and took a chance that one might fit in our oven.   I wanted a small one since it was only the five of us, but guess what?  In China you don’t get a choice!  You buy what you find and turkeys are all one size and imported from the United States.  And they cost around $70 because ladies like me need to buy them.  My ayi was shocked when I brought home the giant bird because the Chinese don’t eat “fire chicken.”  This is the actual translation for turkey in Mandarin.  But she didn’t use the word.  She chose to make loud turkey noises instead.  You know, so I would really understand her.  The bird didn’t fit in the fridge, of course, so I had to order take out to get bags of ice delivered and put it in the kitchen sink.  This also meant I had to buy a “half frozen” bird and wait until the day before dinner to rush to pick it up.  Organizing this meant a lengthy discussion with the woman at the butcher shop and turning a local taxi into a salmonella factory as I hauled the dripping thing home.

I started cooking dinner as soon as all the kids were at school.  The oven was on all day.  I took a break to attend Ava’s concert at school and then came right back to the kitchen.  When it was time to put the turkey in, I had to put the oven rack as low as it would possibly go.  Even then the bird almost touched the top of the oven.  But it fit.  By the time Mark came home from work everything was almost ready.  He was disappointed that I had only made cornbread dressing (my side of the family) but hadn’t made stuffing (his side of the family) so we waited while he made this from scratch.  Add a box of Stove Top to next year’s list, I guess.

Once the turkey was carved, we all sat down at the table.  I had spread out one of our handprint tablecloths from a few Thanksgivings ago.  Every year the gaggle of kids all put their handprints on a new tablecloth and then we use them to decorate the tables every year.  I have a collection of them now, and the tiny handprints get bigger and bigger on each one.  But there isn’t one from last year or this year, now.  So the tablecloth made me happy and sad at the same time.  The kids were a little solemn as well and Lucas finally announced that we were “missing a few people.”  And he was right.  We were missing quite a few people.  Really missing them.

Chinese Halloween

Halloween in China looked like this:

And like this:

And like this:

The kids got to trick-or-treat twice because while the North American parents thought we should hit the houses on the 31st, the management office thought we should all beg for candy on Saturday night.  Not surprisingly, none of my children complained!  Two nights of trick-or-treating thoroughly confused everyone.  Some of our Chinese neighbors had decorations up unaware that this meant kids would be ringing their doorbells looking for candy.  They certainly weren’t expecting it on two different nights.  Ava was surprised to be given three large grapes by one perplexed Chinese woman who apparently thought this was either the equivalent of a chocolate bar or better than nothing.    The kids were also less than excited by some of the other items that ended up in their bags.  Many, many things here are individually wrapped for no good reason which resulted in things like fancy looking prunes being part of our Halloween treat mix.

I planned ahead and made the kids pick costumes over the summer when I could order them easily.  There was less selection, but I didn’t spend weeks running around looking for things.  Henry was supposed to be a Power Ranger, but since he needed to dress up as a pirate for school (the reasons for this are still less than clear for me), he opted just to wear his pirate things for one round of trick-or-treating and his other costume for the Saturday round.  I try not to ask too many questions.

Other than the expected difficulties of missing our house and all of our Halloween decorating– this would have been a knock out year for our political jack o’lanterns!– the one thing that turned out to be the most difficult was the candy.  I had a hard time finding bags of candy and ended up traipsing around on the hunt for fun size candy bars.  I ended up with some questionable Chinese candy from the bulk bins at Carrefour mixed in with some teeny tiny Dove chocolate bars.  By the second round of trick-or-treating I had some bags of Chinese candy and a few of these cookie bar things.

How can you go wrong with “Classic Candy”?

It was the first time Lucas was able to go out in the neighborhood with his friends and NO ADULT SUPERVISION!  Are you surprised that this resulted in one kid needing stitches on his face?  Of course you aren’t!  Luckily, it wasn’t Lucas but one unhappy family had to make a Halloween trip to the Chinese hospital.

Ava and Henry went around the neighborhood with a friend since Mark was delayed at work.  I handed out the candy and actually missed the days of Hawthorn Road with the fog machine and the glow in the dark eyeballs.  The kids came home to sort their loot and ate the imported candy first, followed by the Chinese candy made by foreign companies.  Now we are down to the Chinese candy that none of us recognize.  Almost half of these experimental tastings result in a run to the nearest trash can.  At least their dentist can’t complain.