Pet Zoo

In Shanghai we keep accumulating more pets.  First there was Ming Ming the street kitten, adopted under duress.  Lucas had been begging for a cat and so China obliged by letting a stray have a litter of kittens in our utility closet.  For once I was ahead of the game and after I encouraged all the neighborhood kids to peek at the kittens over and over, the mama cat finally wised up and moved them all as far away from Team Erickson as possible.  But China is not easily outsmarted; so early in the spring another brand new kitten appeared, crying and helpless on our neighbors’ sidewalk.  Lucas was loading the poor thing into a box before any of the other neighborhood kids even had an idea that there might be an available kitten.  I will admit that I went soft.  She really was cute—so tiny and helpless.  Even once she started growing like crazy she was still pretty adorable.  Evidence:


And now?

Cat Yoga

Cat Yoga

Mean as a snake.  Oh, Ming Ming is still cute, but after we left her with only the dog and the ayi for company all summer long she has developed some issues.  She loves the dog with an unnatural passion, for one, and she barely tolerates people.  Her favorite activity is hiding in random shopping bags and launching herself at unsuspecting children.  After Ming Ming the Terrible, I vowed that we were done with pets.  This, of course, is like daring the universe to drop something in your lap.  And being in China, you know it won’t be your ordinary kind of thing, right?  The kids were begging for a rabbit so what did China decide to let loose all over the neighborhood?  Bunnies, of course! Well played, China.  Well played.

The specifics aren’t important, but let’s just say they involved Chinese New Year fireworks, multiple neighbors chasing rabbits, and, ultimately, the Erickson children bringing one of the escapees into our house.  This time I stood firm.  No rabbit.  Mark was less steadfast.  We now have a bunny.

The important thing here is for us all to realize the ultimate silver lining.  Yes, I have an extra pet to house and feed.  Yes, I am yelling constantly about the care of the rabbit.  But without the rabbit I would never have had the need to go to a Chinese pet supply store!  I would never been able to compare the ease and reliability of yet another American institution to the haphazard unpredictability of a Chinese one!

Yes, over the Chinese New Year holiday I found myself trekking across the river to go to one of the bigger pet supply stores in Shanghai.  I would love to say it came highly recommended, but a tepid and reserved recommendation was enough for me.  Rabbits need stuff, apparently, and our local pet shop did not have anything even resembling rabbit supplies.  No matter!  There are other places with the things we need!  And so off I went to Pet Zoo.

I can see why you might be thinking that Shanghai’s Pet Zoo is like Pet Smart or PetCo in the United States.  You would be wrong to think this.  Does Pet Smart feature disco lighting?  I think not.  Does PetCo have the feel of a post apocalyptic 7-11?  No, it does not.  Only Pet Zoo can achieve these things.  Only Pet Zoo.

Upon arrival I was surprised that I needed to take an elevator up to the store.  I was even more surprised to see this sign in the elevator:IMG_0803

Points for honesty, I suppose. Do not bring your exotic pet for boarding at Pet Zoo if you expect it to be alive when you come to pick it back up.  Consider yourself warned.

There are pets for sale at Pet Zoo in case you want to pick up something to replace the iguana they were unable to keep alive for you during your trip to Thailand.  I thought about taking a few photos of the cats they had labeled “Garfield” except the amount of cat snot on the plexiglass obscured their snarling little faces.  I also refrained from photographing the various rodents and such they had in open bins at the back of the store.  The rabbit food and hay was back there, so I looked around as I picked up my things.  The hamsters, guinea pigs, and rabbits are all in these plastic enclosures.   I assume this encourages lots of little hands to sample the merchandise.  As I passed the guinea pigs, they all began making a horrible racket and only stopped their squeaking when I clucked my tongue and shushed them.  I am the guinea pig whisperer!  My elation at my new found powers did not last long, however.  I turned my attention to the hamsters and discovered a terrifying truth about PetZoo.  The hamsters were all burrowed into the cedar shavings when I looked into their little cage.  You know how sometimes it looks like animals are dead but they are really just sleeping?  This is not always the case at Pet Zoo.   Sometimes they are really just dead.  Sometimes you can be sure of this because their front end is missing.

I would like to take a moment now to remind you that all the things on this blog ACTUALLY HAPPEN.  I wish I was making this part up, but Pet Zoo had only the back end of a hamster in one of those cages.  How he got that way I am not sure, but I am pretty confident that the other hamsters knew something about it.  He had been there for a while—long enough for his pitiful little rib bones to be dry and for there to be no sign of anything bloody.  The kids were appalled that I didn’t make a huge scene in the store, but come on!  No matter what the staff said it wouldn’t have made a difference.  Either they knew about the hamster murder and ignored it or they didn’t have any idea about their cannibal hamsters.  Six of one, half a dozen of the other.  You say potato…  Sometimes you decide to just pay for your rabbit food and get out while the getting’s good.  On the up side, I am pretty sure Pet Zoo would be willing to sell you a half price hamster.  (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)


Revisiting the Meat Section of Carrefour (Or Why We Don’t Buy Much Meat in China)

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!

(Don’t) Breathe (Very) Deeply

*Note:  This post was written before we left Shanghai for our holiday break.  I was just too overcome by the smog to actually post it.

The pollution in Shanghai has been out of control.  Maybe you have heard?  Maybe you have Facebook friends constantly posting photos of the hazy view outside their living room windows?  No?  We obviously don’t have the same taste in friends then, because many of mine have been dedicating their time and attention to posting shots of what looks like San Francisco fog but is, in fact, horrible smog.  The pollution has always been something we complain about.  There are rules about when the kids are allowed outside and there is that nifty little scale that tells you how close you are to cheating death by breathing more of the Shanghai air.  Of course, we have never had it as bad as Beijing.  Remember last year when the poor, poor people of Beijing couldn’t even see a few feet in front of them because the pollution was so horrible?  Ahem.

IMG_0686 No, that isn’t fog.  And even worse, it isn’t even close to sunset.  That is a photo of my children waiting at the bus stop in the morning.  Waiting and poisoning their tiny little lungs as they gulp down toxic air!  It was predictable, I suppose.  This is the kind of thing that always happens just when I think I have settled in here.  Just when I have made my peace with China and we have eased into some sort of tenuous ceasefire, things fall apart.  I apologize to all the other people unfortunate enough to live with us in Shanghai during this trying time.  I am sorry you have been drug into this never ending fight between China and myself.  Who knew it would get this ugly?  Who could have anticipated that China would literally fight dirty?

Normally right about now you would be looking at the Peal Tower.  4pm, by the way.

Normally right about now you would be looking at the Peal Tower. 4pm, by the way.

I have actually been having a few good months over here.  I know I shouldn’t say this out loud, but I have been finding my groove.  I finished my dissertation and, after banging my head against the wall for a few weeks, I decided to go back to work.  There was an opening at the kids’ school in the Admission Office and since I’ve been going to work every day things have really evened out.  It turns out being at home with the ayi all day is a little hazardous to my mental health.  It probably helps that once you are inside the school you feel like you could be in the United States.  Well, almost.

Being at school is most likely the only reason we will survive living in Shanghai if the pollution levels stay as high as they have been.  The school has an excellent filtration system.  This is lucky for Team Erickson because, you see, I have been living in denial.  Despite everyone’s dire warnings about the air quality in general and Lucas’ asthma in particular, I have refused to plan ahead.  This is how I deal with the things I cannot change in China.  In a place where you get an email from one of the local grocery stores with the title, “2013’s Food Safety Scandals Reviewed (& some festive cheer!),” living in denial becomes the most reasonable option.  When everyone else was buying air filters for their houses and stocking up on N95 surgical masks I was apparently focusing on other things.  Admittedly, I was most likely arm wrestling Sally the ayi for ultimate control of my household, but I certainly could have taken a break to check into some of the safety issues that are now front and center.  Now as the pollution levels have gotten ridiculously high, I find myself having panic attacks on the way to work.

Talking to my colleagues doesn’t make things better.  They are shocked at my lack of planning.  One of the school nurses took pity on me and gave me a handful of surgical masks for the kids.  A fellow parent left another few on my desk.  Everyone is encouraging me to get air filters for the house.  Of course, those are the things everyone else has been stockpiling.  The things that are now impossible to buy! Lucas asked for a respirator for Christmas.  A respirator!  One evening when the air inside the house began looking like we had a something burning in the kitchen, Mark commented, “We have got to get the hell out of here.”

Which isn’t going to happen any time soon, of course.  So I added some extra things to our “bring back from the USA” list.  I am hoping that this ensures that the air stays breathable once we get back from our winter break.  Like the lice shampoo I buy every vacation as a talisman to prevent the children from getting lice (successful thus far!), maybe a huge stack of masks to keep out the dangerous pollution particles will appease my arch nemesis.  China, this time you’ve gone too far.


*Also would like to mention here that the air has been relatively clean since we arrived back with my excessive number of surgical masks.  You are welcome, Shanghai.

Hang Loose (Otherwise Known as Six)

Along with the language, there have been a few other things that cause miscommunication here for me in China.  I do an obscene amount of shopping here.  Sometimes, I am in a nice Western style store with set prices, English speaking staff, and blasting air conditioning in the summer.  Sometimes, however, I am in a market or a warehouse, or on the street with vendors who might know a little bit of English, but not enough for me to get by with my extremely imperfect Chinese.  I am getting better at communicating, of course, and I am frequently amazed by how much I understand.  But the important thing to remember here is that these things are in context.  No one ever calls me on the phone to randomly start talking about prices and no one in the markets ever tries to start a conversation with me about things outside the realm of buying and selling.  This makes it easier.  There is no scrambling around in my brain searching for the few words I know in a sentence to try to guess at meanings.  When I am in a restaurant, people talk to me about what I want to order almost as if we were following a lesson in a textbook.  When I am buying clothes at the fabric market, people talk prices and quality.  I don’t always get it, but I can get by.  One thing I didn’t anticipate (an unfortunate theme thus far here in Shanghai for me) is the differences in hand signals and symbols.

I should have seen this coming, of course.  As an English teacher I have taught this lesson myself a million times.  I choose to focus on all of the vulgar symbols and gestures because those tend to be the ones my students need to know.  In Sydney the foreign students were always amazed that gestures they thought were harmless were actually the reason they were getting into so many fist fights.  Who knew?  Luckily, I have managed to steer clear of accidentally offending anyone (as far as I know!), but I have discovered that my ability to communicate with my Chinese salespeople and taxi drivers has been less than successful because of the way I count on my fingers.  I don’t know how to count correctly!

The first time it happened, I was at the flower market and arguing over prices with one of the vendors.  I was having trouble understanding her, and she didn’t have a calculator or pen and paper to help clarify things.  She kept putting her two pointer fingers together in the shape of a cross as she repeated the same information over and over.  Fingers in a cross?  What did that mean?  The same thing happened a few minutes later when a vendor gave me what I thought was the symbol for  “hang loose.”  It seemed a little out of place for what we were talking about. Hang loose?!  Sure, but how much were the flowers?

Later, my Chinese teacher cleared things up for me.  Apparently the Chinese use specific hand symbols for numbers.  Symbols that I was seeing, but not understanding.  One through five were the same, but I could start with the pointer or the pinky.  Once we got to six, things got crazy.  There was the hang loose.  Seven was like a shadow puppet.  Eight was what I would think was air guns.  Nine was scrunched fingers that I had a hard time replicating.  And ten?  There were three possibilities for ten, one of which was the crossing fingers using the pointers from both hands.  Or you could cross your first two fingers on one hand.  Or you could make a fist.  Which one was more common?   It depends, apparently.  So you might see any of them.   Three lukewarm cheers for variety!

So you want to know how to count like a pro in Mandarin?  Want to add those quirky hand signals?


You are welcome.

When Worlds Collide

Mornings for me are always the worst.  I will confess that I am not a morning person.  Surprise!  Getting the kids up and out the door doesn’t usually help my morning brighten up much.  Lucas is a morning person and loves to be up before the sun has even considered rising.  Ava and Henry, well, they have been known to huddle under the covers for as long as possible on school days.  This morning was no exception as we organized ourselves to make the mighty lurch out the door.  I deliberately “forgot” to remind the kids that this was technically Super Bowl Sunday in the United States.  No need to upset the little Ravens fans any more than usual on a Monday.  Henry was dragging and then spit toothpaste down the front of his only clean PE sweatshirt.  As usual the uniform doesn’t really help us when we need to decide between two equally dirty options. We settled on the toothpaste.  It was less offensive than the lunch remnants clinging to Henry’s next cleanest shirt.  Luckily, for Henry cleanliness isn’t something he worries about so he was out the door and into the school building with little fuss.

Next on the agenda: a brisk walk up the street to City Shop—one of my disappointing and overpriced expat grocery stores.  We are dangerously close to running out of all sorts of things as I scramble to finish my dissertation.  I had planned on giving the ayi the day off so that I could work in peace and avoid doing any shopping.  Alas, getting in touch with her proved impossible and then there was nothing left to do but head to the store.  I could have gone to our trusty Carrefour or Metro, but I am still somewhat wedded to the American brands for our cleaning supplies.  Sometimes I strike out if I don’t go to the expat grocery.  Our ayi has enough experience that she is beyond using only water to clean everything (something other expats warned me about with looks of grave danger on their faces), but the Chinese stuff has proven to be mostly water anyway.  One bottle of bleach smelled suspiciously like rainwater and not in a pleasant way.  Other things have worked fine but lack the scents that my American brain has come to recognize as clean.  So rather than deal with melon and aloe scented toilets, I am still paying a million dollars to have my bathroom smell like lemons.  Please try to keep your snickering to a minimum.

Today walking to the store involved more face to face encounters with Shanghai.  Every few steps here can bring a new assault on your senses.  Yes, it is dirty.  There was more stuff on the sidewalk today that needed to be avoided both with my eyes and with my feet.  There is plenty to see.  Everyone has laundry out or meat hanging from window sills to cure.  Today though it was more about smells.   Sometimes Shanghai smells wonderful.  For a whole block you can sometimes get a whiff of what your neighbor is making for dinner or you might pass by some particularly fragrant plant.  Other times, just a few steps away, you get hit full in the face with the smell of Shanghai sewer.  Sometimes Shanghai stinks.   Combine that with the throat burning pollution and it can make for one exciting stroll.

And while I was concentrating on the smells I happened to overhear something from my past.  As I was walking along I could hear one of the dialogues from a textbook I used to teach getting louder and louder.  Ah, Headway Intermediate.  The British version, not the American.  The dialogue with the man and the woman discussing what they like to do “at the weekend.”  And I remembered every line of that ridiculous dialogue although it took me a minute to discover where the sound was coming from.  Finally, a tiny Chinese woman passed me, listening to her phone.  She wasn’t wearing headphones and had the volume cranked up so that she could hear the conversation as she held the phone under her chin.  We didn’t make eye contact, but I am sure I looked ridiculous as a giant grin spread across my face.  And I wore that secret smile all the way down the street.

Honk Honk

I do most of my traveling around Shanghai one of three ways: on foot, by subway, or by taxi.  All three have their perks, of course.  Walking I get to see all of the sights on the way to my destination.  I can count the number of men who have decided to take a break to stretch their legs and take a public pee break.  On the subway I can get extremely familiar with the perfume (or lack thereof) worn by my fellow travelers.  I can get an up close look at what my neighbor has chosen for breakfast after he elbows me out of the way to take the last seat on the train.  Riding in a taxi, however, has so many advantages.  It lets me work on my reflexes as I prepare for sudden stops.  It gives me the thrill that one can only experience when they are at the mercy of a stranger to get them from point A to point B in a timely manner.  It gives me a chance to practice my Mandarin and lets me attempt to decipher the language of horn honking.  Sure, back home people use their car horn for more than one purpose.  It can be a warning—Hey!  I am about to hit you!  Argh!—or it can be a pleasant “hello” as you wave out the window.  When I lived in Boston, there was plenty of horn honking, even some that was meant to get your attention in order for the driver to give you the finger.  This was usually after they followed you for several blocks and then made a third lane in order to get really, really close to you.  They really, really needed to express their displeasure concerning that turn you took 30 minutes ago.  Sometimes these fellow road warriors would try to make you roll down your window so that they could better explain to you in colorful language just exactly why they disliked your driving.

But Boston has nothing on Shanghai when it comes to horn honking.  No sir.  In just the short amount of time I have been enjoying Shanghai taxis I have seen the horn used to convey many, many things.  For example:

  1. Watch out!  I am about to hit you!
  2. I am thinking about turning.
  3. Your motorcycle will be too close to me in approximately 3 seconds.  When this happens I plan on hitting you!
  4. I am in this lane, sort of, but I am thinking about moving into that lane.
  5. My car is bigger than your bicycle, so don’t even think about it.
  6. You are driving too slow.
  7. You should have run that red light.
  8. I am going to run this red light.
  9. The light is about to change and I don’t think you are ready to gun your engine.

This last one is more common than you would think.  For some reason, the traffic lights here give you an indication that they are about to change.  And not just from green to red, but from red to green as well.  This means that not only are people able to take a chance on a yellow light to keep from getting stuck at a red light, but on the other side of the intersection the cars are being simultaneously told that their light is about to go from red to green.  I am sure this has some wonderful city planning implication, but what actually happens is that on one side, cars race to avoid a red light while at the same time all the cars on the other side begin to crowd into the intersection in preparation for their light to turn green.  Add to this the constant movement of bicycles, scooters, and pedestrians and you have more chaos than I care to deal with on a Monday.  Apparently accidents happen and some of them are serious.  People get hit by scooters. Cars smash into each other when intentions are misinterpreted.  Which might be the reason for number ten on my list.  A few days ago while riding with an older man in his dilapidated taxi I realized he was just repeatedly honking.  There was no real reason and nothing to make him think we were about to be smashed into or that we were going to smash into anyone else.  Sometimes we weren’t even really very close to any other vehicles.  But he kept honking.  Just a rhythmic beeping that let everybody know we were there on the road.  I couldn’t ask him why he had decided to honk like this, constantly alternating his thumbs on the wheel, so I just sat back to enjoy the scenery and the sound of the horn.  I think maybe he just wanted everyone to know,

10.  We are driving here.  Take note.

Sights, Sounds, and Smells of the City

On the walk to the bus stop today

Gwen: Maggie get away from that poop!

Lucas: Is that human poop? That doesn’t look like dog poop.

Gwen: Um… hmmm. You might be right.

Lucas: Who would just poop on the sidewalk like that?

Gwen: Well the little potty training kids with the split pants just poop anywhere and lots of grown men pee outside. We have seen that, right?

Lucas: Yeah, but would a grown up just come over to these bushes and poop?

Gwen: Um, maybe a taxi driver was working all night and had to poop… Um…Hey! Let’s go put you on the bus!