Tuesday, 22 September 2015
I'm just going to get the bad news out of the way at the beginning...Orange and Other Orange are dead. They were as happy as two fish in a giant blue-lit filtered tank when we left for the summer. Mr Oh also did a stellar job at remembering to feed them occasionally when he was in Shanghai on his own. When he was due to join us in Ireland, he brought the fish into his office where they died. I don't blame them. Offices are no place for fish (or people really). Whenever I used to go into the office every day, sometimes I felt a bit green around the gills too. I didn't die though...I just had a string of children, moved to Shanghai and refused to go back. If only that option were available to pet goldfish.
Orange died first. I didn't ask how but I know that he made at least one attempt at fish suicide before his eventual demise. Other Orange did make it back to us at the end of the summer, but he didn't look great and it was clear that his time on earth was limited. Little A was delighted to be reunited with Other Orange and did ask me a few times where Orange was (actually he calls all fish that are not the one he is looking at at that particular moment 'Other Orange'). I dealt with this skillfully by looking at the ceiling and saying something reassuring like "Oh, you know...here and there..".
Then one morning, Other Orange was gone too. Mr Oh got up early and disposed of his body. That morning, Little A stood on his small giraffe stool, staring into the empty bowl from a variety of angles, as if Other Orange might be wedged under a pebble. "Where has Orange gone?", he asked (still flexible with the goldfish names). I took an executive decision that this would be a good time to discuss death with the 3-year-old. I think the clearer and more forthright we are about these issues the better. I looked Little A in the eye and I said, "Other Orange died". Little A looked at me for a long time with what I recognised as his thinking-hard-face (eyebrows scrunched, mouth slightly open, head cocked slightly to one side). I stood panicked in front of him - a million thoughts and regrets running through my head. Do we discuss heaven? Should I tell him that Daddy threw Orange in the black bin out the back? What if he cries? What if I cry? What have I done? Can I run away now? etc etc.
Little A looked at me and said "Where did Orange dive to?". A big wave of relief washed over me. The universe was giving me a life raft and I was going to take it. "Ehm...the ocean", I said with my best knowledgable look (which is not be confused with my making-it-up-as-I-go-along-look, to which it bears a startling similarity). "Like Nemo?", Little A asked. "Yes", I responded, "Just like Nemo."
"Oh", Little A said, apparently satisfied. "Orange has gone to play with Nemo and Nemo's Daddy in the ocean". I nodded persuasively.
"I want to buy a new fish", Little A announced. I was still nodding.
That afternoon, I set off across Shanghai with Snugglepunk, Little A and Ayi on a fish buying expedition. I had to buy more fish before Little A starting poking holes in my ocean diving story. The place one buys goldfish in this part of Shanghai is the Flower, Bird, Fish and Cockroach market. I don't think that's its official name, but it should be. It's an airless, windowless maze of tiny ramshackle stalls heaving with various things that move and swim and squelch and slither. The floor is slimey and it's best not to look down generally. Also best not to wear flip-flops but I'll know that for next time. With Snugglepunk on my hip and clutching Little A's hand in a vice-like grip to stop him running off to pet an iguana, we inched our way along the narrow alleys - Ayi leading the way, Little A trying to break free from me and me trying not to think about what just touched my foot. Snugglepunk was sitting happily aloft having a good look around and saying 'F-f-f-f' every time he saw a fish, which was every half a second.
Once we located goldfish corner, Ayi turned to me and said "No talking". I nodded and whispered "get 4 fish". Ayi then commenced to shout and point while I pleaded with Little A not to touch anything, not the floor, not the insects, not the slime covered fish tanks, not the birds, nothing. All I wanted was to get out of there with a few fish and no microbes of mutated tropical disease clinging to my children. We came home with 8 fish, 3 kg of gravel and big, pink plastic plant. I'm still not sure about the microbes.
We didn’t really get very imaginative with the fish naming. One was called Orange, one called Little Orange, then there was Other Orange 1, Other Orange 2, Other Orange 3, Black Fish (who was not orange) and Burt Reynolds.
The fish have not fared terribly well. One jumped out the first night. I found his lifeless fish-corpse lying on the floor in front of the tank. Mr Oh disposed of the body. Another was found floating in the top of the tank several days later. Mr Oh is a very good sport about his unsolicited role as fish undertaker. Things seemed ok for a few weeks and then I noticed that the fish all seemed to be infected with some kind of fungus that causes their fins to rot and open sores to appear on their body. I bought fish medicine but, alas, no amount of modern medicine could help those poor fish. One more died last night and Mr Oh bludgeoned another to death this morning to put him out of his misery. We're down to four fish and one of them has an ulcer on his head so I imagine he's next. It's become a real problem because although Little A's counting skills are rudimentary (he just counts the fish every time he sees them so at one point he thought there were 23 fish in the tank which, incidentally, is as high as he can count), even he will notice when we're down to three fish.
I need to source disease-free fish in China. I think online might be the answer. I am certainly not going back to the cusp of creepy-crawlie hell that is the slime market. I might try Taobao. I didn't think live fish was the kind of thing you would be able to buy online and have delivered but then I remembered that this is China...everything can be bought online and delivered. Even a live fox (see below, poor fox looks none too happy about finding itself in the online Chinese marketplace).
I should really just abandon my dreams of having a fish-filled house and just stop buying fish but the boys love them...and i have the stupid tank now. I promise I'm going to stop writing about goldfish soon.
Wednesday, 22 October 2014
Phew…8 weeks down…only another 17.85 years to go (I am not open to criticism on the mathematical logic of that - there is no calculator handy). I have it nailed. Mr Oh is out at a work thing. It’s 8pm. Little A is asleep. I have my foot on Snugglepunk’s bouncer and am gently tapping him up and down which seems to be doing the trick. I’ve just finished a delicious four-cheese lasagne. Ok, so I ordered it on Sherpa’s (food delivery service) but you try ordering food online, breastfeeding and singing the Fireman Sam theme-tune simultaneously. I’m feeling very smug.
I have learned a lot from Baby A that I bring to the table with Baby B. The main rule is: never venture so far from home that you cannot walk back within ten minutes. This restricts my movement to a small area of Shanghai - from Xiangyang to Wukang on the horizontal axis and from Yan’an to Fuxing on the vertical. If you happen to be a fellow Shanghai resident who hangs round these parts in the afternoon, look out for me around 3.30 on Wuyuan. I’ve got blue and white striped Skechers, a screaming baby and can frequently be found shouting ‘W-T-F(in-full)’ at passing motorcyclists who mount the pavement and zoom around me.
Ayi and I are firm friends these days. Mostly because I’ve reduced her hours so no longer have to panic daily about how to create enough work for her to prevent that awkward feeling when your ayi sits silently in the corner with her hands in her lap looking into the middle distance. It doesn’t help that I’m married to the only man in the universe who cannot be prevented from cleaning the kitchen. I keep trying to tell him that all his tidying is leaving me with even less work to give Ayi but he gives me that slightly incredulous are-you-actually-giving-out-to-me-for-cleaning look. Despite her slightly odd habits, I’m very fond of her and she’s actually a great help. She also cleans like a demon and is crazy about babies. Most mothers don’t have home help like we do in Shanghai. I won’t when we go home. That frightens me slightly. How do people do it? I ask myself this a lot. I must be asking it out loud too because as another mother pointed out to me this week:
1. Mothers in Europe do not have to test their children for lead poisoning (not sure how this relates to having an ayi);
2. Mothers in Europe can have double strollers (I can barely wedge one pram through the ubiquitous bamboo scaffolding, shimmy over drains, bump up/down steps etc). I had to walk into the traffic with the pram no less than six times this afternoon because the pavement was blocked by random debris.
3. Mothers in Europe do not have to leave their babies at home when they run errands due to the fact that the air is toxic. I tried to put a particle filter mask on Snugglepunk today when we went outside but he wasn’t too keen so we had to go back indoors. The fact that I had to try to put a particle filter mask on an 8 week old makes me deeply unhappy. If there’s one thing I hate about Shanghai, it’s the air pollution. I hate it more than the spitting, and I really hate the spitting.
4. Mothers in Europe have parks and other places that they can bring their kids to run around and burn off energy. We have the driveway of our apartment building with cars driving in and out and a mosquito infested pond full of carnivorous turtles and floating fish carcasses.
Do I think Mothers in Europe have it easier than European Mothers in Shanghai? No. We definitely have it easier in many ways - being able to afford to pay someone to do your ironing is wonderful, access to affordable childcare is great (bearing in mind that it’s not necessarily the same standard of childcare that you would expect in Europe). We might have it easier, but we also have it scarier. Shanghai is, at times, a frightening place to raise children. Taxis don’t have seat belts (technically, they all have them but they’re often hidden under the seat), a green man does not mean you can cross the road without a car hurtling towards you, a pedestrian crossing means nothing, toys can be toxic, clothes can be flammable, food is - at best - an unknown quantity, the air is unhealthy bordering on dangerous…how does that all stack up against an ironing-free life? This isn’t a complaint, it’s just an observation. As my father would say, “The price…is the price.” (He said this in a conversation specifically relating to house-hunting but I think it has wider metaphysical appeal).
Back to Ayi. These days, we’re doing well. I’m no longer scared of asking her to do things. Yesterday, I asked her to peel and cut the vegetables for dinner. It was amazing - like I got all the fun (and kudos) of cooking without any of the real work. She also cleaned up after me. My new found comfort with Ayi has nothing to do with my own increased assertiveness and everything to do with breastfeeding. I mostly only give Ayi instructions when I’m breastfeeding - I feel like it gives me some kind of moral high ground - like my primal obligations supersede the need to peel a pumpkin. “Look at me, I’m nourishing the newly born…can you please iron these shirts?”
Ayi is also delighted with the new vibe. In the afternoon, when we all go outside to play in the driveway beside the fish pond/graveyard, I run around after Little A like a frazzled lunatic. Meanwhile, Ayi sits serenely on a bench holding court with the other ayis while Snugglepunk dozes lazily in her arms. She parades him around the apartment complex, batting away people who get too close to him and proudly detailing his many positive attributes i.e. his chubbiness, fulsome head of hair and pale complexion.
In her free time, she likes to berate me for being too soft on people (I presume she means people other than her). For example, the building maintenance man told me that he couldn’t fix a metal door stop that had snapped off. Ayi called him back up, barked at him for twenty seconds and within the space of a few hours, the impossible-to-fix doorstop was magically replaced. Thus followed a lecture from Ayi that went a little like this:
Ayi: You must learn. You will never survive if you do not learn.
Me: I think I’m surviving ok *looking unsure*
Ayi: You must be firm.
Ayi: When someone says ‘I cannot’…you say ‘You will do as I demand’.
Ayi: You must be assertive. You must take control. Maybe you need to shout a little bit.
Me: Isn’t that what I have you for?
Ayi: Otherwise they will walk all over you.
Ayi: Now, I will take the baby and you will cook dinner.
It works much better like this.
Monday, 04 August 2014
I have long aspired to be a Tai-tai. In Chinese, it means ‘wife’ but it’s so much more than that. It’s margaritas at lunchtime, having people to clean your house and watch your children. It’s Gucci and glamour. It’s my destiny.
I’ve waited a long time to be a Tai-tai. I ruined my chances the whole first year in China by studying. Schlepping a toddler and a backpack full of textbooks across town on a bus and spending the rest of the day sitting in a classroom that smells of cigarettes and pee is not a very Tai-tai vibe. Tai-tais don’t schlep. They don’t study (they do seem to make an exception for Chinese calligraphy classes) and they definitely don’t wear backpacks (Gucci doesn’t make backpacks).
Now I’m free of my educational obligations, the gate to Tai-taidom beckons. I have an ayi - Ayi - who cleans my house which is just as well because I can no longer see the floor nevermind pick things up from it. My lunches are sadly margarita-free but that can’t be helped either. I don’t have a car and/or driver (although I’m not sure what one would do with a driver but no car) so that’s not really working in my favour but I am within walking distance of the Gucci store so probably don’t need one anyway. I suddenly have a lot of free time.
It’s lunchtime in Shanghai. Little A is napping. Ayi is taking her daily shower in our bathroom. I still think this is weird, although at least more understandable in the sweltering heat of summer after she’s been out picking Little A up from kindergarten. It was harder to reconcile myself to the showering during the mild days of spring when she didn’t have to step outside.
Also, she asked me to buy conditioner for her hair last week. Were it not for the fact that at some point over the next few weeks I may need to ring her at 3am and ask her to come in and stay with Little A while I birth Baby B, I would have indicated to her my firm belief that it is not the role of the employer to provide hair product for their employees. As it was, I bought the hair conditioner and kept quiet. I’m not good with confrontation. Plus, I feel bad because I won’t let her turn on the air-con despite the fact that it’s over 30 degrees outside. I’m not sure why I feel bad though because I don’t have the air-con on either and I’m harboring a human hot water bottle under my ribs. Like many Chinese people though, Ayi appears to be totally incapable of dealing with the heat and now I hide from her so I don’t have to listen to her complaining about how she’s too hot all the time. Oh my god, maybe I am a real Tai-tai - I have, after all, spent most of this post bitching about my ayi. She’s now out of the shower and is napping in front of the fan. I don’t feel bad anymore.
I don’t think she resents me for not being able to turn on the air-con. I told her that Mr Oh was the one who put his foot down. I told her about how I couldn’t sleep at night with the heat and despite being almost 9 months pregnant, he still wouldn’t let me turn it on. She feels sorry for me being married to such a despot. I sighed convincingly. The truth is that it’s just too expensive. Our apartment building is linked to a “hotel” out the back so apparently our building is also classified as commercial property and we have to pay for electricity and gas at 3 times the normal rate. I do question this explanation as a) I’ve never seen anyone stay at the “hotel”, b) the “hotel” is not advertised anywhere and doesn’t even have a sign saying it’s a hotel and c) what kind of “hotel” is located down a residential lane and does not have a breakfast buffet. The kind of “hotel” that is not a hotel, that’s what.
Now don’t get confused, I’m not suggesting that the “hotel” is a brothel or anything. I’m not totally obsessed with Chinese prostitution. Plus, this is a decent family neighborhood. I’m just suggesting that it’s not a hotel and that it’s no coincidence that our apartment building, having almost zero Chinese occupants, has to pay higher electricity and gas costs than other residential compounds. Most of the people in our building don’t pay their own bills anyway as it’s usually included in their expat work package…so no one really complains. I’m not complaining either, I’m just refusing to turn on the air-con and blaming my husband so that the ayi - who I’m secretly scared of - doesn’t hate me. That’s normal, right?
So now it’s almost 2pm. The temperature outside has hit 36 degrees. The pollution level is up to “unhealthy”. I’m starting to get windburn on one side of my face from the fan. Little A and Ayi are fast asleep. My feet are swollen. My hair is sweating. The Unbornicle has the hiccups and with every ‘hic’ I feel a little bit nauseous. This Tai-tai lark is not all it’s cracked up to be. Where are my glamourous lunches? My cocktails? Where is my Gucci?
Fortunately, in 1-20 days, my Tai-tai life will come to an abrupt end. I will throw off the chains of leisure and morph dramatically into a “stay-at-home-mom” which is good because stay-at-home-moms don’t have to brush their hair and the lunchtime margaritas are optional.