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.

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.

Home Again

We made it back to Baltimore after an uneventful flight.  When we moved to Shanghai, we flew business class—something we should never have let the children experience.  When they found out the trip back for summer vacation would be in economy, the reaction was universal.  “Economy?!” they all exclaimed.  “How can we survive in economy?!”  I must admit, I was feeling the same way.  I wasn’t looking forward to sitting straight up for thirteen hours and fighting to use the shared bathroom.  The new baggage restrictions were an unpleasant surprise—only one bag each for an international flight!—and having to pay for the wine I would need to survive flying with all three children by myself added insult to injury.  Luckily the kids are all still small enough to curl up in the seats so they arrived in Newark with several hours of sleep under their belts.  I wasn’t quite so lucky, but we made our connection and got to Grandmom’s house without much drama.

I headed straight to Target as soon as I could get myself organized.  I nearly had a panic attack as I filled my cart to overflowing.  I had a long list of things that were all “Made in China” but actually unavailable for purchase in China.  This is a most perplexing thing for me about living in Shanghai.  We joked about not taking anything from the US to China that would just be returning to the country of its birth, but it is nearly impossible to find all those cheap but reasonably well made things that are made in Chinese factories for sale in China.  There are poorly made things at all the markets and there are high end things in all the shopping malls, but that middle ground that is so crucial for elementary kids’ clothing, for example, is illusive.  I had to force myself to stop with only one cart when I realized I was now just throwing random items I “might need” on top of the crucial items from my carefully planned list.

I had the same reaction in Whole Foods.  I wanted to eat everything and could no longer muster up the energy to stop myself from just emptying entire shelves with my arm.  I also found myself marveling at how cheap and reasonable all the food was—at Whole Foods! You know you have been shopping in the wrong places when a trip to Whole Foods seems like a bargain.  Wait until I venture into Sam’s Club in a few weeks.  I am sure they will have me forcibly removed from the store.

We spent our two weeks in Baltimore visiting friends and dealing with our house.  The sale fell through a few days after our arrival and that took up plenty of the time I would have spent standing in front of my mother-in-law’s refrigerator and marveling at all the space inside it.  I was also moved almost to tears by the efficiency of her washer and dryer and spent some time enjoying the fresh scent of clean clothes that had been allowed to dry completely.  Oh, the things that I once took for granted.  How I have missed you.


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

Not Really A Bargain

When we used to travel before kids, I loved going to the markets and bargaining for souvenirs.  It was fun to be able to spar with someone over the price of an item, especially if I walked away thinking I was getting a good deal.  Most of the places we were visiting had a very favorable exchange rate when we were running around with US dollars so, let’s be honest here, even if someone was charging me way above market value for something I was still spending very little money.  It wasn’t about my budget anyway; it was about the experience.

Mark was the worst at bargaining.  He didn’t like to haggle with people and he didn’t like to feel as if he was taking advantage.  When someone offered him a handmade item or some local treasure, he couldn’t stand to argue about the worth of the thing.  This used to infuriate me because he would make it that much more difficult for me to convince people to sell me things for cheap.  Traveling in Vietnam, he made friends with some of the local girls who sold all sorts of trinkets.  Once he knew their names there was no way he could bargain with them anymore.  Since I was laid up with a horrible case of food poisoning, he spent an entire afternoon paying full price for everything.  When I recovered enough to be back at the market for our last shopping trip before heading home, there was not a soul who would give me a deal on anything.  “Your husband bought these same things yesterday,” they all told me, “and he paid full price.”  Curse you, Mark!

Here in China things have changed dramatically.  Now that we have been here a little while I have come to dislike bargaining.  It really does lose something when you need to haggle over everything.  I was expecting it in the markets, but I have since learned that in China everything is negotiable.  When we were looking for housing the real estate agent told us that he would negotiate the price and any extra things we wanted.  You ask for the moon and then you settle for a little less.  The same goes for all sorts of other things as well.  When I signed up for my language course, they presented me with the paperwork and it didn’t occur to me to bargain.  When I got home Mark told me that it was expected.  At the language school?!  Yep.  I could have gotten a better deal if I had asked for one.

Mark has become a champion negotiator after his time in China.  When we go to the fakes market, he is all business.  The key, apparently, is walking away.  This works well when he is alone, but if the kids are with us this is less effective.  They haven’t figured out that they should at least pretend not to care.  When they see something that they like they beg and plead.  This does not help negotiations.  You are supposed to start ridiculously low, but the children find this unfair and will frequently side with the seller and help to drive the price up.  When shopping on their own they will often pull out all their money so that the seller can see exactly how much they have to spend.  These things drive Mark crazy but we have begun to use it to our advantage with a sort of good cop/bad cop routine.  While the kids beg for some horrible plastic toy, Mark will walk away, disgusted.  I shrug and defer to him.  Who am I to cross my domineering husband?  Everyone knows Mark wears the pants.  Well, that’s what they think in the market anyway.  Surprisingly, people will chase after us and give us our final price.  Score!  I know you will all be jealous when you find out how little we paid for all our fancy laser pointers and spinning plastic light up tops.  I have a house full of chopstick sets, off brand Nerf guns, and remote control helicopters all purchased at rock bottom prices.  You should all be very jealous indeed.