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December 28th marked the end of our official first year in Shanghai. What a difference a year makes! Last year at this time, we were still figuring out the neighborhood and worrying about starting new schools. This year, we arrived back in China anxious to see our friends and get back to our routine. Shanghai still isn’t easy, of course. I dreaded the necessary return to my hunting and gathering ways when I stared into our empty refrigerator, but this is nothing compared to last year when I wasn’t even entirely sure where I might find groceries at all. Our epic trips to IKEA to outfit an entire house are a thing of the past as well, although I am sure I will soon be back to my once weekly trips to get just one more thing. I have made a truce with the crazy Shanghai townhouse. Maybe. It did feel like home to walk in the door this time even if I did scowl at the kitchen just a little bit.

The kids and I survived the plane ride with no unplanned diversions to Beijing. Mark met us at the airport and we took the Maglev home. We knew we were really back when a large group of Chinese construction workers surrounded us at the subway station. They admired the kids and talked loudly about us in Mandarin as they walked us out to the taxi stand. A random woman pulled Lucas’ suitcase and he was deep in conversation with her about how old he was and whether Ava was his older or younger sister. I, however, had apparently forgotten everything I have learned this past year because Chinese just washed over me as people tried to ask me questions. I could only smile and nod as they told me how lovely my children were to look at. So many blond people all in one place! And such big eyes!

Once Ava and I got in the taxi she settled back in her seat with a big smile on her face. “I’m glad to be back,” she told me. “I have missed people telling me I am beautiful.” Sorry, China. We’re here for year two and we expect you to show your appreciation!

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.

More China Hijinks!

It has been brought to my attention that on this blog I often complain about Shanghai.  What?!  Me?  Complain?  Certainly that is not the case!  There is nothing to complain about over here.  The weather, for once, is reasonable.  Sunny, even!  Although I have been told the air quality is horrendous and we should not be outside breathing the toxic air.  I ignore these warnings!  I step outside and breathe with reckless abandon.  The construction noise from across the street has started to sound as soothing as birdsong.  Who can complain about the rhythmic hum of a jackhammer?  I am surrounded by an army of helpful folks who have absolutely no understanding of what I want or why I am even talking to them in the first place, but I am not complaining!

The management office is currently staffed with many of these helpful people.  They are very eager to answer the phone and then proceed to explain to me why something that should take five minutes is about to ruin my entire day.  Take for example, my current light bulb situation.  I have no problem changing light bulbs.  This is something I do all the time.  Never before have I paid someone to change light bulbs for me.  But China is different, and after spending far too much time searching for the light bulbs I needed and then being unable to change them without electrocuting myself, I had the management office send someone over.  I paid him 5rmb per bulb!  After I supplied the bulbs, naturally.  He was also kind enough to show me that in many cases the problem wasn’t my ineptitude, but our house’s faulty wiring.  He repeatedly pulled singed wads of wires out of the ceiling to demonstrate just how “bad” certain parts of the house happened to be.  He fixed these, and contorted himself and his ladder into various spaces until he had managed to replace seventeen bulbs.  Seventeen!  But the lights were working again so I am not complaining!

The bulbs in the living room require a special ladder.  When they put the drapes up, they actually built scaffolding inside the house to reach the top of the windows.  When the management office mentioned an extra charge for the “tall ladder” I was pretty sure that was what they were talking about.  I am willing to pay a fee for this, of course.  No complaining here!  But I need to provide the light bulbs and I have no idea which ones to buy.  They are up in the ceiling, you see, and they require a special ladder!  Can anyone from the management office tell me which bulbs to buy?  No.  Can they sell the bulbs to me?  No.  After multiple phone calls they find a solution.  What they can do is have the guy come, take down the bulb, hand it to me, and wait while I go and frantically try to find the bulb.  At some mystery store, apparently, because nothing thus far in my hours of searching resembles these crazy bulbs I see in my living room ceiling.  Then, when I return from my shopping excursion, he can climb the ladder again and put the new bulb in.  Very simple.

Well, I hate to complain, but this is not so simple.  This is ridiculous.  This made me yell at a nice little Chinese woman who was baffled that I could not understand why no one had saved the packaging from these light bulbs.  I cannot possibly be the first person ever to need these bulbs to be changed, can I?  Every townhouse in the compound has these light bulbs!  So now I am waiting.  I have arranged for the special ladder to come today and will pay for one of the workmen to go and buy the light bulb for me.  I will also pay the ladder fee and maybe overtime while we all wait for him to return with the coveted bulb.  I will then wrestle him to the ground to ensure I have the packaging that might help me when another one of these bulbs decides to stop working.  I can almost guarantee that another one will need replacing tomorrow.  Not that I am complaining or anything.

The Shower Debacle (or Why I Have Been Spending More Time at the Gym)

A few weeks ago, the shower door came off its hinges.  Lucas was the unlucky one taking a shower, and just as he pulled the door handle to get out, the top hinge snapped and the entire door fell forward.  In this house we have only one shower so this was bad news for anyone else who was interested in personal hygiene.  Well, not entirely.  We do have two bathtubs here, but for those of us who prefer a shower, we would have to wait until the guys from maintenance could come over to fix it.

Our Chinese bathrooms, like much of Shanghai, are decorated in what can only be described as excessive sparkle.  They might not be showcases for usable space, but they glitter like nobody’s business.  These bathrooms are an appropriate place for jazz hands if ever there was one.  The shower is one of the many things in the bathroom that, at first glance, looks fantastic.  It is a rectangular glass box with all sorts of jets and nozzles–a certifiable fancy shower.  Once you step in, however, you immediately notice a few shortcomings.  The space inside is surprisingly small and the door has these strange plastic pieces all around it that are intended to keep the water inside the shower.  These pieces fly off frequently, and rarely if ever become a barrier of any kind.  This means that showers, particularly ones taken by the under twelve set, result in large lakes being formed on the bathroom floor.  Using the fancy jets only exacerbates this problem, so we have had to use the shower’s most exciting features sparingly.

The door isn’t the first thing to go wrong with our super shower.  At one point Mark made the startling discovery that the shower only provided cold water no matter how far you turned the temperature nozzle.  The kids had taken showers the night before and the rest of the house had plenty of hot water so the problem appeared to be only in the shower.  Off to the gym went Mark while I was left to deal with the workmen and the shower situation.  After a lengthy discussion involving elaborate hand signals, the problem was fixed.  Hooray!  Hot showers for everyone!  There was one glitch, however.  The workman informed me that someone adjusting the water temperature had caused the problem.  What?  No one had done anything to the water heater or any of the complicated controls on the wall in the kitchen.  I was sure of this because none of us could read what any of the buttons said.  We were afraid to touch them.  Oh no, he explained, someone had adjusted the temperature of the water inside the shower.  That was a no no.  No more changing the temperature to suit personal preferences.  He had set the temperature and we were not to bother the handle in the shower.  I had pressed him a little on this.  What if it was too hot for the children?  That was crazy!  No, he insisted, it was not.  If we wanted to shower we would need to use the water the way it was.  No more fooling around!  Needless to say, we all ignored this and haven’t had problems with the water temperature since.

The door was another matter.  It was heavy and I was afraid to try to move it or reattach it by myself.  The glass hadn’t broken, but there was always the possibility that the bottom hinge would snap and the whole thing would come crashing down.  Mark moved it a bit when he came home from work, but other than that we left it and I called the management office in the morning.

While many things are frequently left undone by our management company, a shower door hanging by only one hinge apparently sounds some sort of alarm.  A workman was sent over right away to get the door reattached.  I showed him the problem and he immediately decided that it was a job requiring more than one person.  The door was bulky, and it took one person to hold the door and one person to fix the hinge.  He got on the phone and management sent one more guy over.  Together they started the work and I went back downstairs.

A few minutes later there was a loud thump.  No crashing, no cursing, and no screaming– just a very loud thump.  I thought about going upstairs to check, but wedging myself in the small bathroom as two guys tried to fix the shower had been unpleasant the first time I tried it.  And once I joined them in the bathroom, I would need to try to explain myself in Mandarin.  I decided that if there was a problem I would certainly find out.  No need to rush bad news by going upstairs and poking around, right?  Not five minutes later one of the workmen scurried down the stairs.  He had wrapped his right forearm completely in toilet paper and was holding the mummified appendage above his head.  He didn’t make eye contact with me.  He just walked out the front door, got on his bicycle, and rode off.  He was steering with his good arm.

Now I was forced to go upstairs and investigate.  Sure enough, the shower door was broken and the other workman was three inches deep in glass shards.  His arms were cut, but apparently he thought his wounds weren’t serious enough to warrant leaving the job site.  He asked for a broom and some bags and started shoveling the glass bits off the floor.  I got the vacuum in an attempt to contain what had exploded out onto the bedroom carpet.  The management office called.  The developer was on his way over.  Ten minutes later five new guys appeared at the door and rushed up to the bathroom.  They didn’t even bother to remove their shoes, which I took to mean this was serious business.  Of course, it could just mean they were jerks that didn’t care about tracking dirt in my house.  Either way, they brought glass downstairs with them when they left, spreading it all over the stairs and into the dining room.

Only the lone workman remained and he stayed all day.  Once I thought the mess was reasonably taken care of I encouraged him to leave.  I tried to explain that I could clean up the rest.  He deemed this absolutely unacceptable and kept right on running his bare hands along every surface.  He winced whenever he found another tiny glass shard, would pull it from his flesh, and immediately go back to sliding his hands on the floor again.  He took everything off the counters and shook the glass loose.  He moistened an entire roll of toilet paper and used it to basically mop the floor.  When he was finally finished he apologized profusely.

We waited two weeks for the replacement door to arrive.  When it did they delivered it at night, and left it lying in the tiny strip of grass between our house and the neighbors’.  Mark only noticed it when he went out to make a phone call.  It wasn’t in a box, just a long sheet of glass propped up on thick wads of paper.  Luckily, no one stepped on it.  The door was finally installed on Sunday morning and we are now back to flooding the upstairs bathroom every night.  Unfortunately, even after all that, my triceps are still a bit flabby.