Dear Dale,

 

Things are starting to feel a lot more normal around here, it’s been 6 weeks since we arrived and I think we’re getting the hang of things. By the time you arrive in a couple of short months we’ll be well settled – I hope!

 

Anytime we head out here, we stick out; you’re going to notice that. That’s never going to change, and to be honest it doesn’t really bother me, I’m not generally aware of being stared at– although its hard to miss when we’re having our photo taken a lot, something that tends to happen if we’re in a more touristy area. Those taking our photos are probably tourists from parts of China and Asia where they don’t see a lot of blond haired, blue-eyed families.

 

Our immediate neighbourhood is fairly international, apart from the occasional truck full of workers noticeably slowing down to stare at us as they drive past, we don’t tend to stick out at all in a community of hundreds of international families – very close to two major international schools.

 

At a popular tourist spot a couple of weeks ago I noticed some parents urging their child to come and stand near us so they could get a photo with their child in it. I naively decided to play nice so got my kids to turn towards the camera for them…oh what a mistake! Seeing our compliance, suddenly Chinese children were being thrust towards us from all sides and grinning parents waved cameras around, nodding their thanks to us for letting them get the shot. Now, its nice to be noticed, but I’m no Kate Middleton, and facing the paparazzi got uncomfortable very fast! A few camera flashes later and I was urging my bewildered kids to get walking, we were out of there!

 

At the market yesterday, I noticed a change in the kids.  The market stall-holders are predictably aggressive, but the kids aren’t intimidated anymore and have learned to keep walking, have learned that it’s okay not to stop and engage with everyone who talks to them. Olivia bartered for a new handbag with little help from me, even getting the hang of how to play the game and get her price. There is no way of ever knowing what the real ‘right price’ is, we assume we pay a premium because of how we look, but the point is to find a price we’re happy to pay rather than the lowest that they’ll go. I’ve learned to stop and think about what I want to pay for something before I ask the price. We’ve all learned that as soon as we’ve asked a price we’ve entered into something that will take some assertion to get out of if you decide not to buy, but we can do that too.

 

We’ve all been working on our Chinese, and trying to make an effort to use it more. Its great to hear the kids asking for water in restaurants using Chinese – it’s a small start but I know they’ll get more comfortable with it. The biggest help to learning language is our lovely driver: car journeys can be long, so I’ve taken to bringing flashcards to practice some Chinese as we get around. Our driver over heard me teaching the kids a phrase in Chinese and was keen to join in – so we have someone to correct our pronunciation and grammar and praise our efforts as we move around the city.  He’s not shy about telling us who has the best pronunciation either (Olivia always wins!).  Our ayi is also always keen to teach the children something in Chinese, I see her shifting almost into a grandmotherly role with the children, praising them and spoiling them! She has met some of our children’s friends, who are fluent in Chinese, she is so impressed with them she has taken it as a personal challenge to get our kids up to the same standard.  She has taken a shine to Leo in a big way – most days she manages to corner him, make him eat tiny apple pieces she cuts up for him and repeat Chinese phrases back to her as he does, I’m usually eavesdropping from nearby trying to stifle my laughter, its hilarious. I’m sure what she says is right though; if Leo wants to grow up to be tall and cutie like his Daddy he should definitely eat apple everyday.

 

 

Love,

Katie xx

Dear Scottie,

 

Have you been tempted to look at airfares to China yet?  Have you thought about bringing my niece and nephews and my gorgeous sister in law over for a Shanghai adventure sometime?  I really hope you are, it would be amazing to have you all over here.   It really would be an adventure!

 

There are the planned adventures of course, attractions and tourist spots, and last night I went on an incredible night-time bike tour in the city which I will highly recommend to all visitors by the way – I sure saw some sights and smelled some smells!  Shanghai is amazing during the day, but seeing the back alleyways, gardens and lane houses, as well as the lights of The Bund in the middle of the night is something else, and navigating those crazy big intersections on a bicycle adds a nice little element of danger to the occasion.

 

Then there are the unplanned adventures that are just part of everyday life trying to navigate living in this astonishing city.

 

I took a taxi home from a function in the city today, the concierge took my address card and talked to the taxi driver, so clearly he knew where he was going and I could sit back and enjoy the ride – about an hour back to my apartment. 

 

There I go again, making assumptions about how things are going to go, must not assume things anymore!

 

Like many Shanghai taxis, this one had no seat belts, so I was already feeling slightly less safe.  Then we got onto the highways, and my ride home started to feel more like being in a pinball machine, this driver was in a race against something – weaving across lanes, braking suddenly, heavy on the horn, and we were flying along at a horrific speed.  I did try to be at peace with the Shanghai taxi experience, I tried to relax and remind myself that this taxi driver knows a lot more about driving here than I ever will, that the taxi was in pretty good condition so he must be adept at avoiding contact with other vehicles, but I started to get a little scared.  I certainly felt inspired to learn more Chinese – I couldn’t even ask him to slow down.

 

Then, on an elevated highway, he stopped without warning.  He didn’t pull over, he made no attempt to find a safe place to stop; he simply stopped.  Once again my total lack of language skills made me completely helpless, I couldn’t even ask what was going on!  I did lean forward to try and see what he was doing, and was utterly dismayed that with a look of complete confusion on his face, he was studying my address card – which has my address written in Chinese as well as a map.  Not only was this guy a terrifying driver, he also didn’t know where he was going.

 

I had travelled that road enough times to know that we were in fact going the right way, and that we were about halfway home, so that was encouraging, but of course I couldn’t tell him that.

 

After a few minutes, he continued driving, and at every intersection he paused to study the card some more.  I didn’t know the rest of the way home and the roads started to look less and less familiar.  At every intersection I considered my options and thought about jumping out of the car and taking my chances in another taxi, or on the metro, or pretty much anything else but staying in that taxi.

 

It was a while before I started to see familiar streets again, and I realised I wasn’t far from home.  Needless to say, I’m writing this because I did get safely home, but not without a chunk of anxiety along with the ride.  There was a lovely big glass of wine waiting for me, which always helps in times like this!

 

So, today’s lessons are all about learning enough Mandarin to be able to manage those situations a little better, and perhaps knowing my way around enough to be able to communicate directions to less than ideal taxi drivers, and also knowing that these things will happen and I will be okay.

 

Don’t let this put you off, we have a fantastic driver who can ferry you around the city to your heart’s content – and I can recommend a great cycle guide if you want the extra challenge!

 

Come see your sister in Shanghai!  You know you want to 🙂

 

Love,

Katie

Dear All,

IMG_1013

Today marks one month since we arrived in China.  It feels like years ago.  We arrived on a typical Saturday morning, it was hot and muggy with a murky sky – like many days since.  We arrived excited and tired after a long overnight flight, we were relieved to get through immigration quickly and easily.  We had the maximum baggage allowance down to the last gram – there was a lot of baggage weighing and repacking at Christchurch airport.  All travellers know, seeing all your baggage inch its way to you around the baggage carousel is a great, great feeling, especially when there is soooo much of it to lose.

We headed across Shanghai on the last leg of our journey; the children were strangely quiet as they took in some of the remarkable sights of their new city on that first drive through it.  I remember a similar drive some months earlier, feeling in awe of the incredible diversity of the architecture, where ramshackle structures, seemingly ancient Chinese buildings and space-aged looking sky scrapers co-exist in a stunning and unique landscape.  I could imagine how my children were feeling seeing it all for the first time.

It took around an hour to get to our apartment, within a big, green and resort-like compound.  We had a little trouble getting into our apartment.  Apparently arriving on a Saturday is just not a good idea.

After half an hour to explore the apartment and count the bathrooms (we have an unreasonable amount of those) claim bedrooms and have a half-hearted go at unpacking, we were back in the car.

Before nightfall, we would need a few basics:  sheets and towels, duvets, pillows and kitchen utensils, all the things we couldn’t fit into our suitcases and which were not provided in our furnished apartment.  Like every fresh off the plane expat we headed to Ikea.  Ikea is a busy place at the best of times; Ikea on a Saturday morning in Shanghai while jetlagged and with three freaked out children in tow is insane.  Even more insane was our decision to have lunch there.  There’s a first time for everything; that was the first time we ate meatballs, with chopsticks, standing up, in a very crowded room where we are visibly the only foreigners.  It was possibly also the last time.

We filled the rest of the day exploring our compound, we found the local shop and bought some essential supplies – we paid far too much for a couple of bottles of New Zealand wine for no better reason than it was what we drank at home.

Finally, we finished our first day with a celebratory meal out at a local Mexican (!) restaurant, with a lovely Kiwi family in their fourth year in Shanghai.  It was incredibly surreal, the complete normalcy of having a drink while the kids try and find nachos on the menu and debate the merits of chilli beans and sour cream.  But we were in China – to stay, it was super hot – in July, this was anything but normal.

One month later, our explorations have taken us further and further out into the neighbourhood and into the city, and we have plans to go further afield and see other parts of China soon.  Its hard to say we’re settled in yet, our belongings from New Zealand have yet to arrive, and with the children out of school for another six weeks we still feel we’re in transition from our old life into this new one.

Our one-month anniversary has been a normal kind of a day, Ross went to work, Zoe baked a cake – something which fascinated our lovely ayi, who then wanted me to show her all the ingredients used (that we put milk and butter into a cake is apparently astonishing) she has asked for Zoe to show her how to bake, a reciprocation of last week’s dumpling lesson.  Leo got a haircut (we all decided, behind his back, that Leo was going first for this – but it all turned out okay despite having very few words in common with the hairstylist, notably ‘short’ and ‘longer’).  Ross and Leo have gone on a short errand before dinner – we’re fairly sure they’ll be coming home on a newly purchased motor-scooter any minute now.

Its been a crazy, wonderful, scary and eye-opening month, I thought about listing highlights and lowlights to mark the day, but to be honest, its hard to think of many lowlights.  This is a crazy adventure, but we love it.

Then, to celebrate our one-month milestone, we’re going out for dinner, maybe we’ll even have Mexican.

Love, Katie

 

PS.  Just as I was posting this, Ross got home with his new toy!  So happy to see the helmets 🙂

Dear Fiona and Hayden,

Our foodiest of friends, I know I promised lots of foodie pics and descriptions by now, and I fear you’re probably diving into this letter in anticipation of such, and I may have to disappoint!

 

Its not that we haven’t been eating well – because the food here is great – we just haven’t yet launched into the full Chinese culinary adventure yet. In our first week here I think we ate out several times: first night it was Mexican (the cocktails were fab), then we had Indian, after that was pizza (very, very good pizza, excellent pizza, but still pizza), we’ve been to the home of some wonderful friends and eaten fabulous Sri Lankan food, we’ve been to the other side of Shanghai for Taiwanese, we’ve had wonderful dumplings that were apparently in the Hong Kong style, sublime Vietnamese noodles and Ross even took the kids to Burger King when I was out one evening, what we haven’t had much of yet is Chinese!

 

The closest we’ve come to Chinese food is what Ross has been cooking at home, enchanted by some roadside noodles he enjoyed on one of his earlier trips here, he’s been cooking up a storm of noodle dishes at home. As for me, I think its clear to the whole family at this point and I can no longer hide it – somewhere between Christchurch and Shanghai I have totally lost my cooking mojo. It’s rather distressing, as I’ve always thought of myself as a pretty good cook, but my offerings thus far have been sadly lacking. Maybe it’s the lack of ingredients – or familiar ones at least, maybe it’s the sparsely filled pantry that I’m starting from scratch, maybe it’s the inadequately tooled kitchen – bare of all my favourite cooking implements and pots, which I hope are somewhere on their way to us, but I’ve completely lost the knack.

 

On a great recommendation from friends, we ventured out on Friday evening for Peking Duck. Not the elegantly served, delicate morsels of downtown, but the local variety, prepared and sold at the local wet market, pretty much where only locals shop. Armed with directions and even a photo of the required vendor, we lost courage at the last minute and took our lovely driver into the market to assist us. We found the stall in question, accessorized with dozens of cooked, hanging ducks, with heads intact, and a giant wood-fired oven in the background. Sticking out like the only foreigners in the place, which we were, we lined up for duck. We watched parcel after parcel passed over the counter to waiting locals, and waited our turn. Ducks were pulled down from their hooks, deftly chopped up, parceled into little boxes, pancakes, hoisin sauce and spring onions added. The Chinese man in the queue behind me grabbed my arm to excitedly and loudly shout something in my face: “He wants to know if you like duck” our driver explained, that’s all. I smiled and nodded like an imbecile, even I know how to say ‘yes’ in Chinese, something I seem to only be able to remember during my Chinese lessons. We got our duck, had our photo taken (a couple of times that we saw, and no doubt more that we didn’t) and went home to enjoy our Friday night takeaways – China styles.

 

Knowing that you lot are visiting next year means I clearly need to do further food research. I’m going to have to eat out a LOT more, I can’t possibly have you arrive and not have a list of spectacular eateries for you to sample – Chinese and other. I intend to compile a rather varied list – from the best of street food to the grandest of fine dining restaurants, I just know you’re going to want to try it all! Just don’t ask me to cook, I’d hate to disappoint!

 

Love,

Katie

Dear Robyn,

When it comes to my kids, I’ve always been super safety conscious – and I know you’re the same. We were always the ones who triple checked our children into their carseat harnesses, sun blocked them to within an inch of their lives and God forbid that they be allowed in the front seat or wearing a lap belt! This was never difficult of course, most parents around us had similar beliefs and local safety standards certainly supported our ideals. (Ideals can be difficult to maintain of course, I wont forget the day years ago when I triple checked that baby Olivia was strapped safely into her car seat, only to have completely forgotten to strap the seat itself into the car – something that became only too clear as I took a left turn bend a little too fast and her car seat cartwheeled across the width of the backseat before I could stop – poor child was rather startled, but still safely strapped into her seat!)

 

Over here, child safety, and in particular road safety, is a bit of a challenge for this kiwi mum.  Remember that fantastic week we shared in Rarotonga?  You and I both managed to put aside our safety ideals and let loose a little – my kids sat five across the back seat of an open-top car without seat belts, and you were seen letting you hair blow free on that scooter as you zoomed around the island without a helmet! Over here, electric scooters are the mode of choice for many families to get around – local and foreign alike, and just like Rarotonga, helmets are a rare sight!

 

Those pictures we’ve all seen on our screens, of comically overloaded Chinese scooters navigating city streets – let me assure you, those are all real! That could be any Chinese street on any day! Traffic is wild here, its fast and it seems chaotic – but somehow its not, I haven’t seen a crash yet and I haven’t noticed any dented vehicles either, I can only conclude that the Chinese are excellent drivers – but they drive very differently to what I’ve seen before.

 

The issue facing me now, is that Ross is about to buy a scooter, and I don’t for a second think he intends to buy any helmets to accessorise with. It’s a case of ‘when in Rome’ on this point, but it’s a hard one to swallow – these aren’t the quiet island roads of Rarotonga, these aren’t the predictable, rule following drivers of New Zealand. This is China, where it’s a little scary crossing the road.

 

In the weeks to come, I predict that my children will be riding on the back of a scooter, through traffic, gleefully joining their father on some excursion or another. I think its my job to let go a little, have a little faith in Ross’s driving – in everyone’s driving – and let them participate in what is a normal part of life here for all of the kids. So think of me, chewing my nails down to the quick while Ross takes one of the kids down to the shops. But trust me Robyn, the helmet conversation isn’t over quite yet!

 

Love you,

Katie xx

 

Photos

To: The NZ Ministry of Health

I have just experienced a small corner of the Chinese hospital system, and I have some comments to make.

Today, as part of the process for being allowed to live here for a few years, I’ve undergone a very routine every-expat-has-to health check. My husband experienced the same some weeks before me; it’s really no big deal. I’ve been warned to expect a fatty liver, I can’t think why, why on earth would my liver be fatty?

I showed up at the allotted time. I had my photo taken, filled out some forms and waited my turn. Then I was directed to what has to be the most efficiently run and fast-moving little corridor in medical history, I shall call it: The Corridor of the Bewildered Undressed.

First room: Weight and height (I peeked, ooh look I’m a kilo down in two weeks! And… I got seven centremetres taller? They’re measuring me in my heels!). Never mind, I’m handed a very small robe and instructed to strip to my underwear, I must leave on my lower underwear and my shoes, but BRA OFF! Gulp, okay. I emerge wearing a very small, thin robe and my high-heeled orange sandals. I am now at one with everyone else in The Corridor of the Bewildered Undressed. We clutch our robes closed and offer each other bewildered half-smiles.

What happens next is a bit of a blur, it’s all very overwhelming, it happens too fast for me to think too hard about how it all feels. I am ordered from room to room without explanation or preamble. I do what I’m told quickly and quietly, just like everyone else. I have my blood pressure taken and my bare body examined for surgery scars (I have my gall-bladder surgery scars jabbed by an efficient finger which demands an explanation, I tell the finger ‘gall bladder gone!’ the bearer of the finger nods and makes a note), I have wires stuck on for what may be the worlds fastest EKG, I have a chest x-ray, I have a blood test, my vision is tested on a standard sight chart and what I think must be a colour-blindness test and I have an abdominal ultrasound (during which ‘gall bladder gone!’ is also duly noted). At the conclusion of each test I am instructed to close my robe and I shuffle through The Corridor of the Bewildered Undressed to the next room and the next test. I think the whole experience took around 40 minutes.

Then happily re-dressed, I was back in the car, being driven home through the rainy streets of Shanghai. When I finally had time to reflect on my startling experience, I still couldn’t really articulate how it all felt. Yes it was bewildering, but if I’m honest it wasn’t that it felt bad – just so vastly different to any previous medical experience I’ve had. It was definitely a challenge to my previous ideas about what privacy and informed consent mean within a hospital environment. In New Zealand these two ideals are upheld as some of the highest virtues of the medical profession, where every person is introduced and roles explained, where each procedure would be accompanied by a reassuring explanation (and of course question time), where I would be encouraged to bring a support person and my rights would be displayed in every room – and where insanely long waiting lists are leading to horrible health outcomes for too many people. Its food for thought really, how much of our so-called rights would we be willing to sacrifice for a fast and efficient hospital experience? What I experienced today would have taken months on a waiting list in New Zealand, and days or weeks to actually achieve – I would have felt much more supported, respected and informed –but it would have cost a whole lot more.

I may be going against the grain here, but in all honesty there is something to be said for an express lane to health care. I’m willing to bet there are many people suffering on waiting lists who would be happy to jump the queue and enter The Corridor of The Bewildered, given the choice.

Yours,
Katie

PS. These results just in: I have a fatty liver!!!!!!

Dear Nana,

I just don’t know what you’d make of all this Nana! Sometimes I try and imagine what you would think of all this, you are such an adventurer – a woman ahead of your time – I know there are aspects of all this you would embrace, you would be excited about our compound and our apartment, you would have stories of so many friends you made around the world and the different ways they live, you would adore the greenery – all the green spaces and gardens would excite you, you would be telling us the names of the plants around here and you’d be excited to learn about new ones. I thought of you on our first morning here when it was a bird singing that woke me up – it was the most reassuring thing – to wake up to our first full day in this mega city of Shanghai with its polluted skies, and hear birds in the gardens outside our windows. Would you have jumped out of bed to try and identify that bird? Or would you have lain in bed quiet and still to enjoy that song while it lasted?

I took the children to the flower market, and its impossible to not think of you in that place! I know you much prefer living flowers to cut ones, but you would be so impressed to see the masses of cut flowers there, every kind and colour you can imagine! What really impresses though, are your beloved orchids. You can’t imagine the orchids! I intend to buy some, but I fear I didn’t inherit your skill in actually keeping the poor things alive – but I’ll give it a try in your honour! The bonsai trees I’ll have to keep visiting the market to appreciate, they are spectacular, but Nana even you couldn’t keep your bonsai tree alive, there’s very little hope for me!

The kids appreciated looking at all the flowers, briefly, but what really captured their attention was the pets. Predictably, Leo is desperate to bring home a pet turtle! I’m not so keen, I’m trying to put him off, yes I can hear you calling me a spoil sport over that one! The turtles are everywhere; any vessel that could hold water was holding a turtle or 50, turtles of every size, in nearly every market stall. I’m sure that before the summer break is over Leo will have a turtle tank in his room. We also saw fish, puppies and more startling were the squirrels and hedgehogs also for sale! I hate to think how sad you would have been to see their conditions.

I think you would approve of the adventures we’re having, you were a world traveller yourself: Europe, Asia and all over North America. I loved your stories of friends you made around the world and I loved how happy it made you to receive letters and Christmas cards from them all. I don’t know how many hours we spent looking through your travel photos – I was also so impressed with them, photos of you and Grandad in exotic places, Grandad always looking stoic, perhaps with a flicker of a smile, you often doing something cheeky and always grinning!

I can’t express how badly I want to share some of this adventure with you, how much I want to write to you or phone you at home, I would describe what we are doing and seeing, you would reflect on your own travels and I would be reminded who the real explorer is. Instead, I know that you’d approve of all this, and that will have to be enough.

Love,
Your Katie-Kitten
xx