Smuggler’s Blues

Written last week on the plane ride back to sweet, sweet shopping freedom…

Will one day be used for blackmail...

Will one day be used for blackmail…

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:

  1. Peanut Butter
  2. Breakfast Cereal!
  3. Oatmeal
  4. Vitamins
  5. Any and all over the counter medicine
  6. Crackers and Triscuits
  7. Rotel
  8. Lotion
  9. Shampoo
  10. Dog Treats
  11. Granola Bars, Nutragrain Bars, Luna Bars
  12. Dry Onion Soup Mix
  13. Dry Hidden Valley Ranch Dressing Mix
  14. Mayonnaise
  15. Electronic Components for Mark
  16. Spices
  17. Vanilla Extract
  18. Laundry detergent
  19. Chocolate Chips
  20. Shoes that fit for me
  21. Cheap clothes for the kids
  22. Shoes for the kids
  23. Make up
  24. Knitting Supplies
  25. Protein Powder
  26. Mio Drink Drops
  27. Cocoa (for baking)
  28. Cocoa Mix (for the kids to drink)
  29. Panko Bread Crumbs
  30. Cornmeal
  31. Grits
  32. Dog Toys and Bones
  33. Ingredients for anything I want to make for Thanksgiving
  34. American Halloween candy
  35. Halloween costumes
  36. Dog medicine (Heartworm and Flea and Tick)
  37. Cat stuff
  38. Asthma medication
  39. Toothpaste
  40. Tampons
  41. Books for the school’s library
  42. Magic Erasers
  43. Dishwashing detergent
  44. 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.  IMG_1398

Exhibit A

Exhibit A

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.



China Crazy

I will admit to always feeling a little frantic when it comes time to leave the US and return to China.  There are always things that needed to be done that never got checked off our list, people we wanted to see who we weren’t able to connect with, places we wanted to go that never quite worked out.  There is the sadness at leaving behind family and friends.  The last day or so I start to feel panicky.  The last few times it has been very, very hard to organize myself to actually get on that plane.  I don’t want to be dramatic, it isn’t like that scene from Dead Man Walking, but those last few steps onto the plane seem to happen in slow motion.  I’m not the only one who feels this way.  I won’t name any names, but other expats have mentioned feeling their hearts constrict in those minutes before the plane takes off.  I am usually the lady wrangling her kids while taking deep breaths and hoping they start drink service ASAP so I can get a glass of wine.  Yes, even on the morning flights.

So imagine my surprise when people posted this on their Facebook pages:

No, that wasn’t me. We were on a different flight, silly.  And we were in economy.

Of course, people began commenting on how sad it was and how there must have been something else happening.  Maybe she had taken some medication that interacted with the alcohol or maybe she had been drinking profusely in the lounge before she boarded the flight.  I don’t know, of course, and it is horrible that they needed to divert the flight and that she was arrested, but the overwhelming feeling that washed over me after reading the article was relief.  There, I said it, I was relieved.  Relieved that I wasn’t the only crazy one, the only one who occasionally thinks about flipping out on that return flight to Shanghai.  Even better, I am not the one who let the crazy out on the return flight to Shanghai.  Success!  Let’s all consider this a triumph.  Because there is crazy and there is China crazy.  I think we all know which kind of crazy I am.  (I am hoping you all thought “China crazy.”  You did, right?)  China makes you crazy.  You need evidence?  I submit the best comments concerning this incident gathered from friends and acquaintances:

“That’s what 9 years in Shanghai will do to you.”

“She must have been drinking that fake Chinese wine made with turpentine.”

“And they were in first class.  Those seats lay all the way flat!“

“Some people just can’t handle Shanghai.”

“China DOES make you crazy.”

And last but not least: “At least she ended up in an American prison.”

So now when we make the trip back and forth from China to the United States, I will have even more reason to try to keep my crazy to myself.  I certainly don’t want to follow in the footsteps of this trailblazer.   No copycat crime for me– no matter how much I might sometimes dread returning to Shanghai. Of course, if we are in economy then all bets are off.


By the end of our vacation, we were all a little ready to get back “home”.  For the kids this was apparently Shanghai.  They started moaning and groaning about missing the dog, their friends, and their bikes with a few weeks left in the United States.  I was less sure about heading back to China.  The summer was more stressful than I had anticipated, and when I got that feeling that I sometimes get on vacation—the one where I am missing my own bed–I realized that it wasn’t exactly the same.  I wasn’t really missing Shanghai. I am still not in love with China, and I was dreading the re-entry.

I started the trip home with the kids just hoping to make it back to Shanghai without killing any of them.  The long break had left us all a little tired of each other and the bickering was difficult to manage.  We were rushed at the airport in Baltimore, but I had been holding out a sliver of hope that we might be upgraded to business class for the 14-hour leg of the journey.  The ticketing agent said that would be unlikely, but that I should wait until we got to the gate in Newark to ask there.  Then she shooed us away and we hustled through security.

Waiting for the flight to leave Newark felt a lot like waiting to leave Shanghai.  The gate was full of Chinese people.  An older Chinese woman took an interest in Henry and said something to him in Mandarin as we sat down.  Her hands embarrassedly fluttered up to cover her mouth when she remembered where we were and that he most likely wouldn’t understand her.  But Henry did understand her.  He was shy, but Lucas and Ava made up for that.  Once everyone knew the kids spoke a little Mandarin, it was just like being back in China.  Our business was everyone’s business.  The woman disapproved of Henry’s video games, and covered his iPad screen with her hands.  She got out snacks and offered pumpkin seeds to the kids.  Henry happily accepted a handful and munched on them as we waited.  I was beginning to remember some of the things about Shanghai that were ok.  Having a trio of cute blonde ambassadors certainly didn’t hurt.  We got upgrades and we all did a little dance.  We even saw some neighbors from our compound and the kids excitedly shared tales of their summer adventures.  Maybe going back to Shanghai was going to be fine after all.

The flight was reasonable.  The upgrades made it easy for the kids to sleep.  There were ice cream sundaes!  Lucas watched a million movies!  The flight attendants were helpful!  What was usually the most difficult part of the journey was–dare I say it? —almost easy.  It looked like we were going to have a trouble free time getting back to Shanghai.  Oh, China.  Why was I worried?

We were about two hours away from the Shanghai airport when the pilot made an announcement.  There was a typhoon in Shanghai and we were being diverted to Beijing.  A typhoon?!  Well played, China.  Well played.  The details were sketchy, but they would let us know more once we landed.  The airline would put us up in a hotel and they would most likely fly us to Shanghai in the early morning.

The next few hours included plenty of general craziness, multiple shuttle and bus rides, and confusion.  I remembered some of the things I don’t like about China, like all the pushing and shoving it takes to get on those buses and shuttles and the refusal to accept the concept of personal space.   The Chinese might love my kids, but they think nothing of separating them from me in a crowd.  We were only allowed to bring our carry on luggage with us.  The checked things stayed on the plane. Each kid had a rolling suitcase and I was lucky to get us all on and off the million escalators in one piece with the wall of bodies both in front of and behind us.  My Chinese cell phone had died during the summer and was useless without the charger so I had packed it thinking I wouldn’t need it. I had put it in one of the checked bags that would now be spending the night at the airport.  My American cell phone clicked into expensive mode as I tried to get in touch with Mark to explain the details.

The airline was nice enough to provide dinner, but because we had had nothing since the midflight snack we all got hungry well before the buffet would open at 6pm.  I was also skeptical that everyone from the entire flight could be reasonably fed in the one hour and thirty minutes the hotel restaurant had blocked out for us.  If the earlier mad rush of people crushing each other to secure a coveted seat on one of the buses was any indication, dinner would be tricky to navigate without injury.  I didn’t want to add an emergency room visit to our brief time in Beijing so I opted to take the kids down early and paid the equivalent of $100 for 4 bowls of minestrone soup, 1 small grilled cheese sandwich, 1 club sandwich, and 4 drinks.  It was not delicious.  We were all in bed by 6:30.

We ended up in a reasonable hotel, but in two rooms that were too far apart for my liking.  I sternly told the boys that they were not to leave their room until I came to get them in the morning.  As anyone could have predicted, this resulted in Henry yelling in the hallway a little after midnight having gone out to “walk around”.  He had, of course, locked himself out of his room.  Never in my life have I put on a pair of pants so quickly.  I was still buttoning as I burst into the hall hoping to keep Henry from boarding some random elevator.  This set us up nicely for the 1am wake up call and the 2am bus ride (AGAIN!) back to the airport.  They had us in the air by 5am.

But the fun wasn’t over yet.  We landed, but had no gate.  Customs didn’t want to let us off the plane, convinced the time we had spent navigating things in Beijing was not satisfactory.  Admittedly, our checked luggage hadn’t gone through customs, but at this point no one wanted to deal with the headache of processing us all again.  We sat down and stood back up no less than five times.  People milled about.  A Chinese woman made herself at home on my armrest rather than move the 8 steps back to her own seat.  Two hours later we were finally let off the plane and into the terminal where we all continued to move as if we were a swarm of bees.  They changed the baggage claim carousel twice and each time everyone from the flight moved like a giant amoeba, stepping on toes and pressing up against each other.   Then we all jammed ourselves around the conveyor belt and slung our bags into fellow passengers’ legs and torsos.   Finally, after a sweaty taxi ride, we were back at Team Erickson’s Shanghai outpost.  And I was actually just a little bit happy to be home.

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.