Hoarding, Shanghai Style

Over the summer, a family friend asked about my daily routine.  How had I been filling my time in Shanghai, particularly since all three kids were in school most of the day?  I know most people expect an exotic answer.  I should have been doing things that one can only do here in China, right?  I should have spent my time doing things that make my old American life seem boring.  Sorry folks, my answer sounded surprisingly mundane.  My days last spring could have passed for those of your typical American housewife.  I got the kids up and hustled them off to the bus stop.  I went to the gym.  I thought about what to make for dinner.  It sounds boring.  Believe me, I know.  All these things might have been the same even if we had never decided to move to China.  But being in China adds an element that is difficult to really convey when I explain my life to people who don’t live here.  Even the most mundane tasks become special challenges.  And these challenges have begun to make crazy things seem totally reasonable.

I know some of you have seen the American tv show “Hoarders.”  Of course you have!  You can go ahead and admit it.  Everyone loves to see all the ridiculous or disgusting things the people on that show have packed into their houses.  They always have reasonable explanations for how things got so out of control, how “collecting” became something bigger or saving for a rainy day turned into being unable to open your front door.  They all had perfectly good reasons to start accumulating cats or to begin carpeting their floors with dirty laundry.  So how did they all end up with a house full of crazy?  And how does this apply to Team Erickson?  Well, apparently Shanghai has turned me into a hoarder.

Currently I am hoarding cheese.  Yes, cheese.  Specifically, I am hoarding that orange colored cheddar cheese.  I no longer care if it is mild or sharp.  It just has to be orange.  I know that cheddar cheese should not really be orange.  I know that white cheddar cheese tastes just as good, maybe better.  This means nothing to me.  What matters to me now is one simple fact: Blocks of orange cheddar cheese used to be available everywhere here.  Now, they are impossible to find.  Predictably, we now cannot possibly live without this cheese.  We need, need, need this cheese so when I find a store selling a few blocks, I buy them all.  Every. Single. Package.  I am not exaggerating for effect here.  I clear the entire shelf.  I leave a gaping hole where the cheese used to be.  I have no remorse.  I don’t think of the other expat moms also on the hunt for this cheese.  I don’t feel sorry that I have most likely ruined their attempts at taco night.  Sometimes I cackle as I haul my groceries home.  Cheese!  Orange cheese!

There have been other things I have had to hoard: sour cream, Progresso minestrone soup, our favorite kind of granola.  I made Mark clear the shelves of Pimm’s in anticipation of summer.  Other Shanghai moms have expressed their frustration when something we have all come to expect will always be around suddenly—inexplicably—disappears.  Multiple ladies are currently searching Shanghai stores for the orange cheddar cheese.  We share recent sightings, gloat over our prize catches.  Not everyone leaves a bare shelf, but most come very, very close.  During the sour cream shortage of 2012, one friend filled her freezer with the containers she found.  She created such an impressive stockpile that her husband became alarmed when he realized there was no room for any other food.  They had a freezer full of sour cream. She needed the sour cream, but was quick to explain herself to me.  “You’re from the South!  You understand.  How am I supposed to cook without sour cream?”  Oh, I understood.  I have filled Henry’s closet with cans of soup, organic long life milk and imported peanut butter.  I am in no position to judge.


Team Tofu

We all knew it might happen eventually…  Team Erickson has become reluctant vegetarians.  Food safety has always been a bit of an issue here for us, but lately it has gotten too difficult to ignore.  We moved here concerned about the effects of pollution on ourselves and the kids, but that was all hypothetical.  I really thought our main food issue would be strange, new, exotic food.  Would the kids like it?  Would they even taste it?  Would I ever get over my street food anxieties?  (The answer to that last question is a predictable “no.”)  I had not thought about the availability of safe, reasonably healthy, affordable food on a daily basis.  There is always some sort of food scare here and we laughed it off initially.  People are injecting sugar water into the strawberries?  Sure they are.  There is some problem with the green bean supply?  Yawn.  Scammers are making fake eggs using chemicals instead of chickens?  Highly implausible.  Still, those stories began to weigh on me.  I have talked before about my shopping difficulties.  That hasn’t changed much.  I am still pounding the pavement in search of dinner ingredients.  Only now I have found that there are certain items that we were happily eating before that I can no longer convince myself to buy.  Like meat.

Team Erickson is a family of meat eaters.  Henry’s love of pork is well documented.  Mark considers it the “trifecta” when he manages to have bacon at all three meals.  Lucas enjoys nothing more than a good hamburger.  Ava loves meat a little less, but still counts herself among the carnivores.  Me, I can take it or leave it.  Some things I love, but I can go without meat, especially here in Shanghai where the things I buy don’t compare in quality to the things I used to purchase in the United States.

So did I force everyone else to give up their beloved pork chops and chicken?  Hardly.  Did you hear about the 16,000 (!) pigs floating in the river here?  The 1,000 ducks?  That river eventually becomes the drinking water, by the way.  Did you hear about all the chickens they killed once our new round of bird flu surfaced?  We can’t do much about the polluted air– holding our breath forever isn’t a realistic option– but we can control what we eat and after a few of those stories we weren’t all that excited about meat.

Are we eating organic vegetables?  Who knows?  For all we know we are eating veggies grown entirely in toxic soil irrigated with the dirty water from some city roof.  Actually, I am pretty sure we are eating at least a few vegetables grown in this less than ideal manner.  We try not to drink the porky water with its high level of heavy metals and I don’t cook with it.  But the water that comes into my house begins in that river full of carcasses and we all use it to shower.  Is our bottled water any better?  I have to trust that it comes from where it is supposed to– a big assumption for China– and that drinking it won’t eventually have some detrimental effect.  Do I sound crazy?  I am sure I do, but let me assure you I am far from the craziest person here when it comes to this issue.  You should all be thanking me that I haven’t started forwarding all the alarming emails I get from the school and my neighbors concerning some new health scare.  Don’t open your windows!  It lets in horrible polluted air!  Open your windows!  Otherwise the off gassing from your carpets and paint will kill you all!  Going home for the summer is not enough time to detox!  We are all doomed!

The kids and I like to joke that we are becoming toxic superheroes.  After breathing polluted air, bathing in toxic water, and eating vegetables grown in questionable soil we can now resist any sort of environmental hazard.  After the next nuclear disaster, they can call Team Erickson to handle the clean up.  We won’t need protective suits.  We will breathe deeply and appreciate the relative freshness of the air.  I should really get to work on our costumes!

How Not to Buy a Blender

The blender in question

Oh, more tales of woe from the Shanghai kitchen!  I mentioned in my post about the crockpot that I was having difficulty finding small kitchen appliances here in China.  Either things are cheaply made, or crazy expensive, or just not available.  And yes, it is not lost on me that all of the things at my old local Target were actually made in China.  My recent trip home reinforced the irony of living in the country of origin for so many cheap products but being unable to find them here in Shanghai.  Hilarious, I know.  I am trying to be judicious in my selections when it come to the kitchen.  There isn’t much room in the tiny Shanghai kitchen and I don’t have much storage space in the form of closets here either.  The things I buy need to be worth the space they take up on the kitchen counter.

I had been burned before, so when I decided to purchase a blender, I was determined not to make the same mistake.  I would buy the name brand thing this time—no crazy Chinese company for me!—and I would be sure I was buying something that would get the job done.  This time I was even contemplating making a move to the expensive store with the imported appliances.  One of the other students in my Chinese cooking class had told me about a store that was a short cab ride away where they had insanely overpriced name brand small appliances.  He had suffered with a shoddy food processor, and had decided it wasn’t worth the hassle to spend the time and energy staking out all the local Chinese stores for miracles.  He confessed to having been knowingly robbed by the shopkeeper, but claimed the prices were worth it to eliminate the aggravation factor alone.  I was set on going that route myself when fate intervened.

Poor Ava decided she could no longer live without breakfast smoothies and she was begging for a blender to help remedy the situation.  Mark needed to go to the hardware store so Ava and I tagged along.  This hardware store isn’t like most of the places in Shanghai where Mark prefers to shop. He was planning on going to the equivalent of Home Depot.  A Chinese big box store, if you will, instead of his usual hole in the wall specialty places where they only sell wheels, or rubber tubing, or specific sizes of screws.  On top of this massive hardware store there is an equally massive store selling appliances.  Mark assured me they had blenders–he claimed to have even seen a food processor–and, since I only needed this blender to make smoothies, I figured it was worth a shot.  We browsed the aisles accompanied by an eager Chinese saleswoman.  She and her colleagues were keen to talk to Ava and to tell me how pretty she was.  They were happy to show us the blenders and to make recommendations about quality and style.  At least that is what I thought they were doing since we were all trying to make ourselves understood in Mandarin.  I could have been completely off base.  They certainly seemed to be discussing the different blenders.  We all agreed on which blender would be the best.  One was most certainly the highest quality—a name brand number with a glass container.  I indicated that I wanted to buy the blender and that’s when things got confusing.

Buy it?  The salesladies were sorry, but I couldn’t buy that blender.  After all that discussion it turned out that there were only two blenders available for purchase.  Two out of at least twenty on display!  They were made by some random Chinese company, and, while they looked sturdy enough, I had my doubts.  So now the choice was only between the glass container or the plastic.  Which one would I prefer?  The instruction manual was completely in Chinese as were the indicators—only three speeds, mind you—on the dial.  The saleswoman pointed me toward the one with the glass container.  It was “very good”.  The plastic one?  Only “so so”.  I reluctantly bought the glass one.  I only needed it for smoothies, surely this thing could handle a few frozen banana slices, right?

This could say anything, really

Wrong.  When I went to make Ava a smoothie the next morning, the blender was incapable of grinding up even the smallest morsel of frozen anything.  Even paper thin frozen banana slices proved to be too much.  I tried the other settings.  I violently shook the container.  I stirred in between each futile whir of the blades.  The entire kitchen shook with the force of the blender’s motor, but every attempt produced the same result—yogurt with fruit chunks.  Any dreams of making pina coladas with this blender died as I tried and tried again.  There was no way this thing could handle ice cubes.  And there was a curious smell–burning plastic, maybe?—accompanying every flick of the dial.

This may very well say “Not an actual blender”

Chinese blender?  Epic fail.  Sigh.