The "School Trip"
1. I know I swore I'd never write about anything pertaining to goldfish again but, as I'm discovering, goldfish are to young children what fixie bikes are to hipsters.
2. A flurry of white feathers just fluttered down outside my living room window. If I lived in a different country, I might investigate but as I live in China, I think it's best not to. Also, set to the background sound of the soprano practising her aria across the road in the Shanghai Conservatory of Music...the moment was quite dramatic, and weird.
So, last week I received an email from Little A's school informing me of the upcoming school trip and inviting me to attend. As is normal with Little A's school, the information provided was minimal. They would be going somewhere with "rollercoasters, water-rafting, gold-fishing and vegetable-picking". The thought of a clutch of 3-year-olds on rollercoasters and rafts in China (the 'in China' bit is important) set my A-dar blasting. (A-dar is the implant in my head that senses when Little A should not be doing something).
The school, while encouraging parents to go, weren't too happy about me bringing Snugglepunk along as well. They suggested I leave him at home (strapped into his highchair for the day with a supply of rice crackers perhaps?) and told me that it was too dangerous for a 1 year old (but not apparently for 3 year olds who are famous for being significantly more mature and world-wise than 1 year olds). It's not that I particularly fancied the idea of juggling two small children for the day, one of whom likes eating rubbish and the other who likes picking sticks off the ground and swishing them around in the faces of other young children while shouting 'I'm a pirate, ARGGGHHH...me hearties". But, I didn't want Little A to miss out on whatever it was that was happening and I certainly was not going to let him go under the supervision of the school which is well-meaning but generally chaotic and disorganised.
So, yesterday Little A, Snugglepunk and I set off on the school trip with two bags, one pram, two slings, two packets of baby wipes and about 300 rice cakes. It is impossible to have too many rice cakes.
Little A goes to an "international" school but it seems to be 90% Chinese. It's also supposed to be bilingual but I think it's bilingual in the way that all the Chinese kids speak Chinese and all the English speaking kids speak English and I don't sense a whole load of crossover. Little A never speaks Chinese in front of me so I’m never too clear how much he actually speaks and understands…more than me probably.
We took a tour bus an hour north of Shanghai which wasn't actually an hour north of Shanghai at all because it was still Shanghai...so perhaps better to say an hour north of my Shanghai. I had very little idea of what kind of place we were visiting, so at least my expectations were low. I had been on enough school trips with Little A to know that we needed to pack a lot of food. The school provided Little A with a "packed lunch" consisting rather randomly of two bottles of water, a banana, four mini "croissants" (i.e. bread rolls shaped like croissants) and two bread rolls shaped like bread rolls. I seem to use an inordinate amount of "quotation marks" when writing about China - maybe because things are often claimed to be things that we later find out are not the things they claim to be at all - if you get me. Little A and Snugglepunk had polished off the bread roll extravaganza before we even arrived so it's just as well I had also packed three tupperware boxes of sausage pasta, apples, juice and the 300 rice cakes. Small boys are hungry - I know this from experience.
We arrived at what seemed to be some kind of park. It was immediately clear that it was a very Chinese destination i.e. it was packed full of people and the bins were overflowing at 10am. The first mass activity of the day was a trip to the toilet (this is, after all, a class full of 3 year olds). The toilet was a ceramic trench with small dividers along the wall. There was no flushing, no water, no doors, no toilet paper. I've spent time in China so I was vaguely ok with this and knew that it was best not to dwell on it, not to breathe and not to touch anything. I'm seasoned at the way of the squat trench. Little A however was having none of it and refused to step near the trench. "I don't want to fall in", he said wisely and went outside to find a less offensive tree upon which to relieve himself. I made a mental note not to drink water again for the rest of the day.
The whole thing was a bit mental. There was a lady with a microphone and whistle whose job appeared to be to corral us like cattle. She also had a faded red flag raised high in the air that we were supposed to follow through the crowds of people and children all in their own groups, with their own red flags that looked entirely identical to our red flag. Every time we weren't doing what we should, she would start piping on her whistle and rabbiting down the microphone in Chinese. She was Captain Von Trapp in the squat body of a middle-aged Chinese tour guide, with a voice like a round-saw cutting metal.
The first "activity" (I'm starting to think I should just put quotation marks around the whole entry), was the "playground" which was, in fact a dated and decrepit amusement park. We had a jolly little ride on a squeaky train before Little A spotted a large swinging pirate ship and demanded that we go on it. I looked at the swarming mass of Chinese tweens pushing and clambering to get on the ride, which looked a bit rusty and didn't appear to have restraints and tried to jolly him off in the other direction. The only other rides were a spinning one with water guns and bumper cars. Little A took one look at the cars and said "I wanna drive car!". I thought "Well, that's not possible, he's only 3...surely he wouldn't be allowed on the bumper cars" but, you know, it's China so I don't know why I thought that, of course 3 year olds can go on the bumper cars! In fact, it turns out that 1 year olds are also allowed on them but some maternal instinct at the back of my spine must have kicked in because I decided that Snugglepunk was a tad too young to be bashed around in an electrified vehicle. My Chinese friend Kitty offered to take Aodhan on the bumper cars. While he was at first delighted, his joy turned to horror as he realised that the cars were crashing into each other and he started to get panicked. Kitty, however, managed to drive around the little bumper car arena in smooth circles avoiding all other cars and people while Little A sat frozen in terror beside her.
Thankfully, activity 1 was now over. Activity 2 was a "boat" ride. The "boat" was a series of bamboo poles tied together with benches strapped on top. The "life jackets" were pieces of orange material stuffed with something that may or may not have been buoyant. Apparently they also have no problem with one year olds on floating bamboo rafts although they had neither child nor infant versions of the possibly-though-not-necessarily-buoyant "life-jackets". Not wanting to be the neurotic foreigner who wouldn't participate, I gingerly stepped onto the raft clutching my two children, and chose a bench towards the back. Just after I got on, about 6 other families pushed their way onto our raft, including one that wedged themselves onto our bench. The gondolier-man shouted "too heavy!" so two more men jumped on. He shouted "too heavy!" again. I was about to volunteer to get off as the raft started listing precariously to one side and then, Tour Guide Von Trapp herself hopped on, shouted at the man with the pole and off we lurched into the middle of a lake of unknown depth. I looked down at the bamboo poles that separated us from the water and saw that they were now submerged and water was starting to pool around my shoes. If I had a picture of my face at that moment, I am entirely sure it would have been ashen. It's not that I can't swim, I can swim just fine, but the two little boys can't swim and didn't have life jackets, and the raft was slightly submerged with one side rising up out of the water. I was the only person concerned, apparently, as everyone else was chattering away and Tour Guide Von Trapp blew down on her whistle in a moment of, what seemed from my panic station at the back, to be exuberance and joy. Snugglepunk started to squeal and try to wriggle out of my arms. I forced a smile and looked down at Little A beside me. With my best jolly voice I said, "Isn't this fun? A boat!". He looked up weakly and said, "I want to get off". I nodded, gripped his hand and started trying to remember what I had learned in those two lifesaving classes I did when I was 14. Thankfully, it was a short boat ride.
Swiftly moving on to Activity 3...fishing. Sorry, "fishing". Fishing consisted of a series of large plastic tubs filled with water and terrified goldfish around which dozens of crazed children with nets were wedged, frantically trying to, ehm, fish. When a fish was caught, it was squeezed into a container of some kind, usually a waterbottle the diameter of which was less than the diameter of the fish itself. Sometimes they didn't bother adding water - it was grim. For proof - see picture below. I'm not big into animal welfare but even I was slightly horrified. Even so, I gave Little A a net, squashed him in between some older kids and let him loose, knowing that the freaked out fish were all huddled together in the centre of the tub, beyond the reach of his little arms. He caught nothing. Eventually, Tour Guide Von Trapp got on the whistle again and we all assembled under her frayed red flag. Little A looked around...all the other children had goldfish. He looked at me plaintively, "Where's my fish?", he wailed. And in a very Augustus Gloop fashion, he threw a net at me, pointed to the tubs and screamed "GET ME A FISH. NOW!". My little tyrant - so cute.
Normally, I would deal with this like a good parent, gently talk to him about his tone and help him deal with and understand his emotions. But I had been in that godforsaken park for 3 hours, I was sweating, Snugglepunk was screeching for food, i had at least 7 mosquito bites and all my good-parent-motivation was drowned in the lake. I picked up the net and took myself over to the fish tub. After a minute of failed fishing, I gave up. The net was too small, the children were pushing me and the fish were wiley. Unable to face the prospect of Little A's inevitable meltdown and the ensuing chaos, I looked desperately around for a solution. Kitty pointed to a man with a barrell. I gave the man 20 kuai (€3) and he gave me a little fish box with a handle and there were 7 little fish inside! A failure for parenting, perhaps, but a triumphant win for my afternoon sanity. Predictably, Little A was bored of carrying the fish approximately 3 minutes later so I was left to juggle baby in sling, fish in hand, buggy in other hand and small child trailing behind me whining that he wanted to go home.
Activity 4 was "peanut picking". Despite the fact that I had three Epi-pens in my bag, I did not feel like bringing my nut-allergic baby "peanut picking", quotations marks or not. Instead I spent 45 minutes milling around the rubbish strewn entrance, waiting for the group to finish the final activity and watching my children lick the railings.
Eventually it was over and we were back on the bus. Some parents had to take another bathroom break before we got back on the bus. It had been 4 hours since we had last been to the bathroom but I was holding it in. Kitty came back looking shell-shocked. She didn't want to speak about it. And she's Chinese - that's saying something.
On the bus, Little A turned to me and said. “I had a great time”. Confused I asked, “Did you like the bumper cars?”. “No.”, he said, “They were dangerous”. “Ok, did you like the boat?”, I asked. “No”, he said, “That was dangerous”.
“So, what did you like?”, I asked again. “Mummy came”, he said, before falling asleep against the window. Sniff.
So now we have our four fish, plus the seven from the school trip, two of whom are already dead. Current fish count: 9.
Likelihood that I'll never mention fish again in my blog: low.