There’s a new man in my life - Harry. I first came across Harry when we walked in through the door of our temporary apartment in Shanghai. Harry was lounging on the sofa slurping on one of those iced milky coffee things. It was not immediately clear who he was. He bounced off the sofa in his surfing shorts, flip-flops and t-shirt and bellowed ‘Hey guys!’ followed swiftly by ‘Hello cute baby!’ (presumably at Baby A). We still weren’t sure who he was but he hung around for the best part of an hour before leaving with a reassuring ‘You got any problem, you call me, okay?’. Okay.
Two days later I had a problem - I couldn’t work out how to dry the clothes in the washing machine. I called Harry. Harry came over later, I found him in the living room. I don’t think he knocked first. He just arrived in our living room and was poking around the place when I happened upon him all bouncy and Asian-surfer-dude. I brought him in to look at the washing machine. He fiddled around with it and squealed ‘Wha you do wrong, I dunno, I tole you how to do it. You need to do it like I say.’ I said I did it exactly how he say but it still no dry clothes. ‘Ay yah, I dunno. I cannot work this type of thing. I no do laundry. I know wha you need - you need muzzah *guffaws*. Muzzah do laundry!’. He disappeared then and came back half an hour later with a big metal railing which he told me I could hang my clothes on….”like Chinese muzzah”. Then off he wandered, not before pinching Baby A’s face and shouting ‘So cute baby!!’ far too loudly in his ear.
He is tall for a Chinese man and has a look about him as if he might ‘work out’. If they ever did The Real World, Shanghai - Harry would be in it. He doesn’t look like a Harry - he should be called Brad or Chad or Logan - something suitably flippy. Harry is flippy. He’s also very camp but I can’t decide if this is a reflection of his sexuality or just the number of hours he has spent watching Katy Perry videos.
A few days ago our internet was down, for the third time that week. Reluctantly I called Harry. He appeared in the apartment again some time later. I knew he was there because I heard a long, high-pitched ‘Helllloooo cute babeeeee’ emanating from the living room. Baby A was in the process of scurrying under the coffee table to get away from him.
I explained the problem we had with the internet. Harry flung his hand up to his forehead and threw his head back in anguish. ‘Why? Why? Why’ he wailed, somewhat unexpectedly and, I thought, unnecessarily. “I don’t know why this internet box no work. Every time I come look at it and it just no work some time later. I no understand why some things not good things. Machine is like people. Sometimes they just die. You think they ok and then they die. No one understand.” I nodded. “This box”, he continues, “it like broken person. It want to die. I no understand why”. We stood in silence for a few moments (it seemed like the right thing to do).
Suddenly Harry perked up. “You do like Harry way, okay? Take power out and then power in. Harry way make ok. Box might die, but you can make work again. Okay ba-bye”. And off he went.
We’re still not entirely sure who Harry is or what Harry does. We hope he’s not coming to our new apartment with us though. To be fair to him ‘power out, power in’ i.e. turn off/turn on, always seems to fix the internet.
Baby A needs to go to school or something. His daily activities need to be more varied and constructive than mushing watermelon into the sofa and biting my shins. He has had no home to speak of for over two months, no stability, no routine, no other babies to play with, nowhere to play with other babies even if he did manage to find them (the marble floor of the serviced apartment does not have a lot of give).
I would like to say his toys are winging their way over to China as we speak, along with the rest of our belongings, but that would be a lie. They are schlepping. The long drag, I can hear the containers sigh with the chug-chug of it all. We have been informed that it will be October before our stuff is here. October! That is two months from now. It’s because I joked with the movers about ‘taking the slow boat to China’, isn’t it? They thought I meant it. They put our stuff on the slow boat, the one powered by sealions.
So Baby A has no toys and will have no toys until October. Toys here are apparently made with toxic plastic, lead paint and grenades. I brought lots of books for him which was a stupid move - the child is 12 months old. He’s very smart but he can’t read and he doesn’t know the difference between a dinosaur and a camel so it’s all kind of lost on him. He has the iPad but he has technology fatigue already and has lost interest in it.
He likes remote controls so he has already inadvertently changed the settings on the TV so that doesn’t work anymore. He likes plugs which is a fascination I’m trying not to foster but we have a big bag of plugs and wires and he’s just so happy wrapping himself up in them and trying to stick different ones into the wall sockets.
We felt sorry for him, and guilty for moving him across the world with nothing but a plastic spade and a toy snake for company. We bought him a Mini-Micro scooter. It’s like a scooter with a seat so he can sit on it and then when he’s older, you remove the seat and, ta da!, it’s a scooter. Needless to say, it was very expensive and he has no interest in it. He likes the alan key that comes with it though.
Yesterday, Baby A and I went to work with Mr Oh. Work consisted of getting up at 6am and boarding a bus to a Chinese tourist water town with a group of 20 other people. Half of the group were students of Chinese literature from Fudan - one of China’s top universities - with the other half comprising the world’s leading Joycean scholars.
Baby A and I could pass for neither. We were too old and too young, respectively, to pass for Chinese literature students or, indeed, students of any kind unless one of us is remarkably prodigious and the other is *gasp* mature. Although, physically we may have blended passably with the other group, the fear there would be that someone might start a conversation with us. “Have you read much Joyce?”, they might ask. “No” we would reply (or I would reply because Baby A would be busy rubbing bean paste from the cake that one of the students slipped to him along the seam of the Joycean scholar’s trouser leg). “Have you read any Joyce?” they might continue, deflated. “No”, I would reply. They would be disappointed. This would be before they noticed what Baby A had been up to. Disappointment would turn to barely concealed rage. I would apologize profusely and reach for tissues. Baby A would cackle and then, as I was trying to wipe bean paste from the fabric, Baby A would grab the loose skin on their face, just below their eye, and gouge tightly with his unkempt claws. It would be ugly - people would cry.
I thought if I were, however, to deflect all talk to Joyce - Baby A and I might be in with a chance. I could go in on the offensive. “So, have you read Incy Wincy the hard back wipe-clean tab version?…Sublime”. Baby A and I would then break into a round of Incy Wincy Spider. I would do the hand movements and Baby A would bounce up and down in his pram like the conductor of the New York philharmonic. The scholars would be confused and, later perhaps, moved by our touching rendition. No one would cry, unless they were tears of joy. Ok, Baby A might cry but it would have been unrelated to Incy and possibly related to the unexpected loss of the bean paste cake which I would have grabbed out of his sticky hand in the preceding moments.
The reality about Joyceans though is that they’re really, really into Joyce and not that much into Incy Wincy. Joyceans are intense and focussed and random. I say random because they’re not who you expect them to be i.e. they’re not all David Norris. We met a very nice Korean lady who was a Joycean scholar. I wanted to know how and why she decided that that was what she wanted to do with her life and career. Does she read it in Korean? Maybe Joyce is more appealing in Korean than it seems to be in English. I didn’t ask her, I was terrified of mentioning Joyce in case someone thought this was an invitation to start a Joycean-type conversation.
One of the Chinese professors on this unusual outing had recently translated Finnegan’s Wake into Chinese and apparently it shot to number 2 on some Shanghai bestsellers list. I secretly wonder if it was the Chinese Joycean Scholars bestsellers list. Not having read it, I’m in a weak position when it comes to criticism or sarcasm, I admit.
I decided to hang out with the students mostly and let them fawn over Baby A and feed him cake. It seemed like the better option. At one stage as we wandered about in the sweltering mid morning heat looking at an ancient Chinese building, I looked over to see two young, very intelligent, serious, Chinese literature students fanning my 12 month old son from either side of his pram as if he were Tutankhamun himself. I made a mental note that the child needs to be socialized in a normal environment before he comes to believe that he’s immortal.
Mr Oh, during this excursion, was taking a different and not altogether unsuccessful approach. Having actually read some Joyce (albeit not a whole lot) he was taking the little nuggets of knowledge available to him and wringing ever single nano drop of conversational kudos out of them, with gusto. As he wandered around the alleys of Zhujiajiao discussing the merits of The Dubliners (and not much else) he did seem vaguely convincing as a Joycean scholar.
As to why an international band of Joycean scholars, a handful of Chinese literature students, a diplomat, a hausfrau and a baby were meandering the streets of ‘Shanghai’s Venice’ together early one hot August morning, I’m still not sure, but it was a good way to spend a few hours.
I’m still recovering from the fact that this town, Zhujiajiao, is considered a suburb of Shanghai and yet we drove for over an hour on the motorway to get to it. That’s a story for another day. The mind-melting giantness of China is not an issue I’m ready to tackle before lunch but I would like you, my faithful reader i.e. Mom, to think about that for a minute. An hour - on the motorway - still in the suburbs - not even left the city. Bonkers.
We have seen quite a few other ‘foreigners’ on our ramblings around our new home city. I wouldn’t say that the place is saturated with westerners but you see quite a few in Italian restaurants and in the more shiny parts of town. They’re certainly not a rarity…but I haven’t really seen any foreign children. Perhaps it’s because families tend to live in Pudong, the more suburban, recently developed area of Shanghai as that’s where all the international schools are located. Maybe it’s because it’s sweltering outside and most sensible Europeans, Americans and Kiwistralians have sent their children back to more temperate climes for the sweaty season. Maybe it’s because I’m not looking in the right places, or looking at all.
We did come across another non-Chinese couple of complex provenance who had a daughter about the same age as Baby A as we were getting pizza last night. They had been in Shanghai for about a year or so and when I told them that we had only been living here for four days, the mother - let’s call her Melinda (because I can’t remember her real name and she looked like a Melinda) pursed her lips together and winced, “Good luck sweetie, that’s all I can say”, she trilled. I politely moved away. She floated past our table on several other occasions throughout the evening and we attempted a few other strains of conversations, all of which left me cold. She told me about a good playgroup she attends, adding “and it’s fairly Chinese free” as though she were outlining the facilities. I was tempted to point out that she was in the wrong country if avoiding the Chinese was a life goal of hers but I suspect she already knew that. I mentioned that I was thinking about looking for a kindergarten for Baby A and asked her if she knew of one. She told me at length how she believes it’s more important for a mother to stay at home with her children for the first three years of their lives and how she would never leave her child for others to look after. As if to neutralize the possibly offensive nature of everything she had just said, she added ‘but that’s just my opinion’.
I smiled and nodded. I have met people like her before - in China and in Singapore. They don’t learn the language, they don’t explore the culture or enjoy it, they look down on locals. They live in a total expat bubble, frantically blinkering themselves from the reality that they live in China. I suppose I’m not really one to judge them. I am fond of many elements of expat bubblehood and maybe they didn’t choose to be here. It annoys me though - that kind of negativity. It’s an -ism, like racism, but acceptable somehow, maybe because most westerners in China are a little bit guilty of it. It’s believing that we are better, separate, more refined, smarter because we’re western. It’s cultural imperialism. It’s ugly. But to an extent it’s also unavoidable.
It’s almost impossible to integrate into Chinese China - not without the language which is extremely difficult to master. And maybe even with the language, maybe even then it’s still impossible. And because we’ll never really assimilate because we, foreigners, by virtue of our foreignness are not Chinese - obviously.
I read an article today by an American man whose wife worked in the Wall Street Journal and he travelled with her to Beijing and was essentially the stay-at-home dad. A Chinese wife who doesn’t work is often referred to as a Tai-Tai - this man, in his own words, was a Guy-Tai. The advice he gave to newly arrived expats in China was “surround yourself with positive people, and focus on what’s there, rather than what isn’t”.
I don’t think hanging out with Melinda is going to up my positive chi factor but I gave her my email address anyway. I can’t really afford to be batting away potential friends on the basis that I don’t like them. If we do become best buds, I’ll have to remember to delete this post - someone remind me.
It’s 40 degrees in Shanghai at the moment. Melty. We cowered indoors until 5pm this afternoon…even then, it was still 40 degrees but there wasn’t much direct sunlight which made it more manageable.
We decided to make like locals and get the metro somewhere. Taxis are extremely cheap but we’re too hipster for personal transport. Actually, it’s more that they’re a pretty dangerous way to transport a toddler. No seat belts, no rules, no safe. As we won’t have a car here, I obviously can’t avoid using taxis altogether but I’m going to try to limit it to times of true desperation (rainy days and Mondays?).
Our journey today (3 stops, 1 transfer) cost the princely sum of 40p per adult. It was clean, fast and efficient. It was far nicer than either the New York subway or the London Underground (which are both quite creaky and dingy really). It wasn’t quite as nice as the Singapore MRT but nothing ever is. Despite being the most ‘western’ city in China - it’s still very much a Chinese city and the majority of transactions still take place in either Mandarin or, alternatively, hand signals.
Luckily, I came prepared. I had looked up the word for transit card online in advance and so was able to stroll nonchalantly up to the ticket booth and say in my best Crouching Tiger accent “请给我两个交通 一卡通” － two of your finest and most ubiquitous transit cards please (at least, that was the sentiment). The result was not, as I had expected, two lovely transit cards. The response was a blitzkrieg of rapid fire Chinese the only part of which I picked up was ‘no money’. This is where the hand signals really came into their own. Turns out you have to pay for the card, which doesn’t have any money on it, and then add money separately. Thankfully, I’ve been doing baby sign language for several months now and it all worked out in the end.
During our early evening meander around Shanghai, having successfully negotiated public transport like total pros, we stumbled upon a group of Chinese tourists from out of town. We knew they were Chinese tourists because all thirty or so of them were wearing matching light blue t-shirts and taking photographs of lamp-posts, paving stones and other Shanghainese specialities. As we reached about midway through their ranks, the inevitable happened, and all hell broke loose.
The first one to sound the alarm was a well-coiffed, middle aged lady who up until that point had been gazing aimlessly around. Once she spotted the golden locks of our little cherub she wailed loudly to her nearby companions ‘xiao pengyou!’ which translates as ‘little friend’ which I thought was terribly cute. With that, the hordes descended upon Baby A as if he were Beyoncé. He responded accordingly, smiling, posing and high-fiving - also as if he were Beyoncé.
Eventually, it all got a little intense. There were grown men, men with grandchildren, men who might have been powerful CEO factory overlords snapping away at a blonde toddler in a pram with their high-spec giant SLR cameras as if he were a superstar (see photo above). He’s always been our superstar…and now, it seems, his fan base is growing. We’re going to have to start managing his diva tendencies. He’s already demanding raisins on his Weetabix…whatever next?
I spent weeks researching how to manage jet lag in babies. I asked people, I made schedules, I had a system. Turns out, babies cope with jet lag pretty well. There was one night of wanting to party at 3am and then, last night, he slept through like a clockwork orange. Sadly, the same can’t be said for adults.
At 2am, Mr Oh was reading the imaginatively titled A Short History of China which he reckoned would help him nod off but which, despite its lack of titular titilation, he was still reading at 4am. I was tossing and turning for hours until insanity seemed to take hold and I started mumbling in my best faux-Confucius impression “Body ti-yard, mind wi-yard”. On occasion, I would leap out of bed to look something up on the internet and return half an hour later for another futile attempt at falling asleep.
I tried to count slowly in my head but what started out as “One…two…three…” became “Twenty four - I wonder if I can buy sweet potato here - twenty five - stop thinking about sweet potato - twenty six - focus on the numbers - twenty seven - twenty eight - mmmm, sweet potato salad - twenty nine - no more sweet potato - thirty - thirty one - thirty two - I should google where to get sweet potato”.
I think it was almost 5am before I finally fell asleep. Baby A had, at this stage already been asleep for six hours. Four hours later he was up again, bright as a button and ready to play. I groggily picked him up and was wandering about our serviced apartment looking for the iPad with which to amuse him when the doorbell rang. This was surprising because a) it was 9am on a Saturday morning and b) we don’t know anyone in China. With Baby A slung across my hip, I opened the door and was confronted by three small middle aged Chinese ladies. On seeing Baby A they let out a chorus of ‘Waah, oooh’s and Baby A, feeling the love, gave them a wave along with a general shout of welcome and the three of them toddled right past me into the apart.
The three unknown women all split in different directions - one into the kitchen - one to the bathroom and the third started heading down the corridor to where Mr Oh lay in a sleep-deprived haze. I shouted that he should get up and a few moment later he emerged in a stumbly fashion from bedroom and collapsed back onto the sofa for several minutes before enquiring as to why there was a Chinese woman making his bed at 9am on a Saturday.
While Mr Oh was unsure about the whole thing, Baby A was totally invigorated by the sudden arrival of company. He scurried on hands and knees down to the bedroom and was quickly swept up in the arms of two of the ladies who poked and pinched him merrily as he giggled away. They chattered away to him in Chinese and he, in return, shouted and them loudly in a Maoist fashion. Eventually, Mr Oh and I, sensing that we were getting in the way plucked Baby A from his coterie of admirers and hauled him (still shouting away) out of the apartment in search of breakfast. By the time we returned, an hour later, the ladies were gone, the apartment was spotless and Baby A was ready for a nap. A successful Saturday morning in Shanghai.
I stopped writing. I didn’t want to. I didn’t intend to. Like most Irish people, I blame the EU. 2013 brought the Irish Presidency of the EU and Mr Oh’s hours got longer and later. There was no-one to hold the baby as I tootled away on my keyboard.
This coincided with another unfortunate development - Baby A started to eat food. What began as a relatively simple procedure (pour baby rice into bowl, add milk, shovel into baby’s mouth) became increasingly time consuming as Baby A realized that he wanted to eat everything, all the time. I spent my few free moments peeling, steaming and pureéing vast quantities of fruit and vegetables as Baby A sat in his highchair shrieking at the top of his lungs and throwing handfuls of mashed avocado at the wall. He ate every single thing I put in front of him (apart from bananas), making loud gobbling noises as he went and occasionally trying to push the pulverized mush through his belly button, as if that might be a faster way to get it in. Kilos of carrots, piles of apples, absolute mountains of sweet potato - it was all suctioned merrily into his tummy.
Suddenly, I didn’t have just one meal a day to cook but four. One for Mr Oh, and three for his hungry boychild. Every taste, every new flavor and texture was a revelation to him. The first time he tried a croissant he was so overcome that he lay flat on his back for about twenty minutes afterwards lolling happily in a pool of flakey crumbs. After months of doing baby sign language in the hope that he would be able to communicate lofty thoughts at a young age, the very first word he signed back at me was ‘more’. Six months later, it’s still the only word in his repertoire.
He swiftly graduated from steamed mush onto more sophisticated tastes - chicken curry, spaghetti laden with garlic and herbs, olives, baked pasta dishes, oriental stir fry i.e. adult food. The upshot of this is that I no longer have to cook separate baby meals. He just eats what Mr Oh eats…and about the same amount too.
I’ve been trying actively to introduce new flavours in preparation for today. At 7 months I started adding coriander to his food, at 8 months onion and garlic, at 10 months chill pepper and then, just after his first birthday we moved him to China and fed him dumplings. So that, essentially, is what we did today - we moved to Shanghai and gave Baby A dumplings for dinner. He seems remarkably unfazed. I like to think the hint of coriander in his puréed sweet potato all those months ago is making the transition easier.
I’m not entirely heartless though. I let him have a croissant for lunch - just to ward off the culture shock.