Guess who just found a stack of old notices sent by the compound management office? Comedy gold!
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:
- The bills arrive in the mail. The ayi checks the mail and then hides the bills for me to find somewhere around the house.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
There are limits to my patience. I know this surprises you. After all my previous blog posts concerning my inability to just “let it go,” I am sure you were thinking that eventually I would be full of vanilla cupcakes and rainbows. While I am pretty certain no one was expecting sunshine from over here, I have found it hard to put up new posts because I am feeling so negative about China. And that isn’t really fair to China. While my rants about Shanghai are often funny, sometimes I can’t seem to see the humor in certain situations. When I get to that point, there is no turning back and my mood tends to poison the whole house.
I didn’t want to come back to Shanghai after this summer and was finding it hard to motivate to pack and organize all the things we would need and want once my direct access to Target was cut off. A few days before our departure I found myself waking up in the wee hours to obsess over all the things about China that drive me crazy. That state of mind has lifted a bit since the end of July, but not much. This wouldn’t be a problem if I were here in Shanghai alone or just with my husband, but I am here with those wonderfully impressionable children that I decided to drag along for this adventure. Part of my job as a parent living abroad is to make the experience as enriching for them as possible. This does not mean that I make everything easy or that I keep them from having those difficult moments, but it does mean that I try to keep my feelings to myself when I am particularly venomous about our host culture. Unfortunately, I don’t have much of a poker face. I am also (surprise!) a notorious complainer. These two things combined with our general lack of privacy here in our cramped living space means I have been doing a terrible job of focusing on the positive.
This brings us to a few nights ago when my unhappiness was really ticking along. One of the boys was also having a ShangLow day and was railing against the table manners of the Chinese. This is certainly something that you will never hear me defending, particularly as my Southern roots tend to make themselves apparent when it comes to moments like these. That said, I know it isn’t up to me to decide what is and what isn’t polite here in China. If you want to know about how to behave in the United States, feel free to ask. If you want to see me volunteer this information as we sit with a table full of Chinese nationals eating dinner, good luck. You won’t hear a peep out of me. This means my house is often ground zero for heated discussions concerning manners and what is and isn’t acceptable. Inside our house, the US rules apply although Mark has taken to slurping his soup and drinks as if he grew up in Puxi. The kids ride the line sometimes, but they are well aware of the limits of cultural exchange here at Chez Erickson. The child in question was furious, and deservedly so, at having witnessed what they thought were atrocious manners. Of course, the other individual in this scenario might have seen things differently, but I was trying to provide some good mama vibes. I held my own until faced with, “Name one good thing about Chinese culture!”
Ouch. And here is where I drop the ball both as a parent and as a guest in a country that is not my own. For all the things I complain about, there have been some wonderful things that have happened here in China. I have some fabulous Chinese colleagues and friends who have opened their hearts to me and have helped me when there was no reason to do so. There are many things about Chinese culture that I respect and admire. I may not always understand China, but I can respect history. I can see the good in individuals even when the overall picture frustrates me. But do I say this? Do I volunteer this information to my child as he shakes his fist at the sky? No. I hesitate. And this is just enough time for his eyes to grow wide and his mouth to harden and for him to spit out, “See! Even you can’t think of one positive thing!” And I stammer and stall as I try to push down the part of me that is angry and annoyed and remember the part of me that can see the shiny happy stuff. But the moment is already gone and I have missed the chance to say what needs to be said, to put the train back on the track and convince my child to give things some time. I have done the thing I have tried so hard not to do and let my feelings become the conversation here at home.
Written last week on the plane ride back to sweet, sweet shopping freedom…
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:
- Peanut Butter
- Breakfast Cereal!
- Any and all over the counter medicine
- Crackers and Triscuits
- Dog Treats
- Granola Bars, Nutragrain Bars, Luna Bars
- Dry Onion Soup Mix
- Dry Hidden Valley Ranch Dressing Mix
- Electronic Components for Mark
- Vanilla Extract
- Laundry detergent
- Chocolate Chips
- Shoes that fit for me
- Cheap clothes for the kids
- Shoes for the kids
- Make up
- Knitting Supplies
- Protein Powder
- Mio Drink Drops
- Cocoa (for baking)
- Cocoa Mix (for the kids to drink)
- Panko Bread Crumbs
- Dog Toys and Bones
- Ingredients for anything I want to make for Thanksgiving
- American Halloween candy
- Halloween costumes
- Dog medicine (Heartworm and Flea and Tick)
- Cat stuff
- Asthma medication
- Books for the school’s library
- Magic Erasers
- Dishwashing detergent
- 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.
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.
Remember when I described the meat section of Carrefour? How the meat is in these big open bins and you choose the pieces you want? Here is more proof that I am not crazy and that Chinese shoppers value “creative” solutions to problems. Enjoy!