Thursday, August 14, 2014

when we were young and happy and PUBLISHED!

I got paid to write a thing!

Adapted from this blog post, xoJane kindly published "Unpopular Opinion: Living Abroad Shouldn't be a Mandatory Life Experience".

I learned 2 major things from this experience:

  • Hyperbole does not translate well online
  • Americans seem to think moving abroad is something rich people do, funded by their parents when my life experience has shown quite the opposite -we move away because we're broke and we can a) make more money or b) live on less (or both) if we go away. 
Anyway, it was good fun and I appreciated many of the comments. Looking forward to carving out some time soon to write something else now that I've gotten the rush of writing something that came with a paycheque. 

(Although I think I'm to like $4 in my AdWords account. Thanks 3 people who clicked on stuff on this blog!)

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Shanghai answers: Advice for newcomers (Or, 1 year in Shanghai complete!)

We've been here for one year...quite the milestone!

My Chinese is not as good as I expected. My experience with tai chi is still 0. We haven't saved up nearly as much money as we anticipated. But overall, I'm pretty happy with "level 1 intermediate" Chinese, a decent social life, and a job that is actually on my career path. Oh, and a dog that I have an unhealthy obsession with. I think my 1 year ago self would be quite pleased, if a bit concerned about how easily I've adapted to riding my bicycle like a local.

Quick aside to actual Shanghai newcomers:
For those of you who don't know, I work for a community center for expatriates, overseeing their charity programs. Helping people to adjust to life in Shanghai is what we're all about and I love it. It can be so easy to live here, with a bit of support and guidance, especially in the first days. We have a half day orientation session for newcomers that is FREE and includes breakfast, lunch, and childcare. Check it out.

In descending order of importance, here is some of my advice after 1 year in this grand city.
I study on the train. People talk about me studying. I eavesdrop. Free tutoring.

Learn Chinese

You don't need to. You can survive with next to no Chinese, especially if you have a smartphone. Between maps, translation apps, and English customer service from many vendors, you will get by. Most people don't speak English, but in expat-heavy areas, many staff will. Places like banks and post offices, in my experience, often have a token English-speaking employee. 

I have found, however, that learning pinyin (a system of transcribing Mandarin words in Latin characters) at the very least simplifies life in Shanghai. You can avoid completely mispronouncing names of people, places, and products. You can also read out translations from dictionaries/translation sites. While the characters look familiar, you do need to study with the help of online videos or a tutor to get the pronunciation correct. For example, "zh" is pronounced like the letter "j" and "x" sounds like "sh".

I do strongly recommend learning more than just pinyin. Being able to communicate in the local language, whether it's ordering a beer, telling people where you're from and a bit about your family, asking prices, getting directions, or even just asking someone to wait a moment while you grab someone who speaks Chinese can make a huge difference in your experience in Shanghai. It also really comes in handy when traveling to other cities where English isn't as prevalent in signage or customer service. 

Plus, it's really damn satisfying to eavesdrop or complete a conversation with no gestures or confused looks!
Is it possible to overuse this photo? Less than 3 months old...

Invest in appliances

One of the biggest mistakes I made when moving here is not buying an air filter immediately. The air quality tends to be good in the summer. But come October/November, Shanghai is a dirty, disgusting smog pit from factories making Christmas items and the air getting more dense with cold. And you want to be ready.

After the first week of eye watering air poison, I found myself with a throat infection  requiring antibiotics. Two friends also got infections that week.

That freaked me out enough to invest in a simple air filter. It was about $150 (1000 RMB from Carrefour but you can buy the same model on Taobao for 800 RMB). I leave it on every single night. If the air quality is above 200, I turn it on during the day, as well.

In the dirty air season, I needed to replace the filter every two months for less than $12 a pop (75 RMB on Taobao). Definitely worth it.

I could feel a difference right away. My throat wasn't sore when I woke up. The weird coughs went away. It's not that expensive of an investment for a big payoff.

The other appliance I obviously needed to buy sooner (read my blog post about the weather if you're not familiar) is a heater. Since that post, I have acquired two oil heaters that I intend to use as soon as the weather drops below 10 degrees. I suffered through winter last year and I will not do it again. This stubborn Canadian relents! Shanghai insulation (or lack thereof), you win this time. 
Valentine's Day burritos and beers

Stop cooking so much

I enjoy cooking. Our kitchen is no longer in a cupboard. I insisted on cooking basically all of our meals with very few exceptions for the first 6 months we were here. I packed lunches for the Irishman. I made a lot of crappy imitation Chinese noodle dishes in an attempt to save money.

I realized in the end that my husband's $3 work lunches cost almost exactly the same as me making his lunch. When he started buying his lunch at work, it eliminated the daily struggle to firstly get him to remember to bring the lunch (usually me getting out of bed to put it in his bag or shouting from the bed, "If you forget your lunch, I WILL divorce you!" which had mixed results) and secondly, to have the Tupperware return home. Actually, if you factor in the lost Tupperware, I'm certain buying his lunch is cheaper. 

Once I chilled out a bit about food, our diet got much more diverse and barely cost us more. Local street food and restaurants aren't that plentiful in our neighbourhood but I can still get a big steaming bowl of hand stretched noodles with fresh veggies and meat for $2.50 that always hit the spot. Ordering off Sherpa's (an English-language food delivery service that picks up at TONS of restaurants) can be inexpensive and easy. With happy hour free delivery, we can be super lazy and each order from different restaurants. 

Speaking of delivery...
Pup and decorations both delivered. Shanghai style.

Getting stuff delivered

Almost everything in Shanghai can be hand delivered, often with cash on delivery and very low (or no) delivery cost added. Amazon does cash on delivery. You can get tickets, groceries, booze, furniture -you name it. Sometimes within a couple of hours. I've got the number of a guy who will come by within 15 minutes to repair bicycles or scooters. Our dog gets groomed by people who come by the house. 

If I got a dog walker (who would obv come to the house), I could stay inside indefinitely. 

I spent a lot of time in miserable fluorescent lit supermarkets until I got a job. I hadn't realized that Tesco does groceries and household items for basically the same price I was paying at the shop. They bring it to my door, I pay by debit card at the door, and I save myself the hassle of trying to balance cheap wine, oatmeal, soy milk, tinned tomatoes and whatever other heavy items I have on my bicycle.

Fields (use referral code FDRD73F5AC92 to get a 50 RMB bonus!), Kate and Kimi, and City Shop are great expat (read: expensive) options for home grocery delivery, especially for organic produce and imported goods. Taobao has tons of food sellers --it's the cheapest place I've found for buying Heinz baked beans for our weekend Irish-style breakfasts! But Chinese language only, unlike the options above. 

I still favour my local wet market for veggies and the dude in the truck on the corner for my fruit. But my days of waiting in line at checkouts are now few and far between. 

Sometimes it can be frustrating to live in Shanghai. Even expats who have lived here for years encounter cultural blips and frustrating misunderstandings. Bureaucracy, face saving tactics, people trying to take advantage of foreigners...there will be very bad days. But, one year in, I can say that it really does balance out. Many of us have job opportunities we couldn't dream of back home. People are typically very friendly and welcoming (and get a good laugh out of a foreigner speaking Chinese). I can go places that remind me of home and then turn a block and be in an old-school Shanghai alleyway complete with cats, street vendors, and laundry flapping in the smoggy breeze.

Newbies, an open mind, a Chinese tutor, and an internet connection will get you very far in the city that is increasingly feeling like home for me. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Typhoon time: In awe of Shanghai weather

Last Sunday, after having his phone drowned in typhoon rain on his way home from football, the Irishman and I took a walk to our local Xinjiang/Muslim Noodle restaurant. The rain had cleared, leaving the air thick with moisture and heat as it had been for the last week or so. Shanghai occasionally has thunderstorms, especially at this time of year, so I am told. Usually when these storms occur, they clear, leaving cooler weather and cleaner air. So I opted not to bring an umbrella.

After I got my spicy take-out noodles, we started to walk towards home. Ten steps into our 15 minute journey, we saw people ahead of us sprinting towards the buildings on our left. I had just enough time to say, "Why are all those people running?" when *click*, like a switch had been flicked, some of the hardest rain I have experienced in my life started to beat down on us.

Car and motorcycle alarms were triggered by the force.

Immediately soaking wet, we took shelter in a real estate office that was nearby. Some teenage boys, absolutely drenched, followed us in, sprinting. Employees stared at us awkwardly as we all peered out the door at the sheets of rain coming out of the sky. An English speaking Chinese man who had been standing in the doorway when we ran in kindly offered us his umbrella. We declined and, against the urging of the others gathered in the office, braved the storm for half a block, ducking into the DVD shop that was next on our itinerary.

The DVD salesman quickly got us tissues to mop up our dripping bodies while we browsed pirated movies. (I admit I would normally have guilt about this but if you have experienced Chinese internet speeds, you would understand why we cancelled our Netflix account. And legit DVDs are all but impossible to acquire.)

After grabbing a few terrible comedies and a depressing Irish movie involving a lot of sarcasm, death, and casual racism (how many of these are there?), we trotted ourselves back out to the street to grab a bottle of wine from the convenience store (49 rmb/$8 for a Chilean cab sauv at convenience stores located on basically every block in urban Shanghai...I may never leave) and head home.

Hand in hand, we relished the full force of water that was unrelenting. Chinese people, loathe to have rain or sunshine touch their skin, gawked at us through shop doorways and windows.

In such a busy metropolis, typhoons force everyone to slow down, take a break, and be a bit patient. A typhoon on a Sunday, with no work, no plans, and no damage caused is a gift. People in our neighbourhood find us strange but are hospitable and friendly. I felt so happy.

Typhoons do not make Charlie happy

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Post-first visitor recap - On being Shanghai tour guides-ish

My butt has been kicked back into blogging mode now that we have hit some milestones: the end of our first school year here, first round of friends moving away, and, most importantly, our first guest!

Lynda is a former coworker of the Irishman's. They were instructors at a University of Toronto Engineering Outreach camp in our last summer in Toronto. Previous to this visit I had only met her once, for about 2 seconds. Regardless, I was still excited for another female to even out our house and start hosting!

I should mention that Lynda's parents are Shanghainese so she had the added bonus guest attribute of being able to communicate with the locals. Interestingly, she speaks no Mandarin, which is much more commonly spoken since so many people migrate to the city. In some instances, she was able to communicate really well with locals and in others, like at Hai Di Lao restaurant, she wasn't understood at all. Locals, as you will see later on in this post, got a real kick out of it, anyway!


Lynda's main priority was food. We took her to a few places of note, mostly on the expat circuit.

Sichuan Citizen - Basil martinis anyone? For the first Friday of her two week visit, we visited this expat staple and kicked off the evening with their flagship evergreen, frothy beverages. We were lucky to be joined by a friend's partner who knows his Sichuan food and made delectable choices. I'm salivating just thinking of all of the hot pepper goodness. (Admission: We were back 2 weeks later when other friends of ours were playing host to their Canadian friends. Basil martinis and introducing more people to the deliciousness that is bass in oil with a million peppers. Sigh.)

Pistolera - In Pudong, not far from our place, this Mexican joint seems like a strange pick for someone on holiday. Possibly just humouring my non-Asian-food-loving husband, Lynda was game. The free tortilla chips on the table didn't last long. We bumped into some adorable girls playing outside the restaurant, one of whom (clad in a pink tutu, of course) giddily exclaimed, "I threw an egg at your face!" to the Irishman. The logical explanation being that, at a school fair, she paid to throw an eggshell full of paint at him to raise money for charity. Shanghai is big, but the expat hotspots teem with familiar faces.

Lost Heaven patio, or The Time I Made the Group Photo Awkward to Save Space

Lynda's top 3 in no particular order

Hai Di Lao - (Note: they don't take reservations in English and their website makes no sense. Just Google for locations and phone numbers. Also a warning - they are open 24/7 so if you are a newb like me and reserve for "8 o'clock" they might think you mean in the specify.) Just the two of us had a lunch date while the Irishman sat on the bench at a softball tournament. Both fans of spice, we opted for a totally Sichuan spicy hot pot. Most people order a split pot: half spicy, half not. I was very pleased to be able to burn my mouth with every item I consumed. Hot pot is tricky with only 2 people but for two small women we managed to pack away a ton of food: beef balls, fish balls, mushrooms, bamboo, several plates of veggies, plus fruit. If you pay a bit extra (9 RMB or $1.50 if memory serves), you have access to a "make your own hot pot sauce"-bar and an array of fruit. Always choose to pay the little bit extra.

Hai Di Lao is a chain but don't let that lower your expectations. The food is delicious, service impeccable, and the little touches will blow your mind. Need to wait for a table? Don't worry, you can play board games, eat cereal and drink juice, get a manicure, have your glasses cleaned...etc. Lynda was given a ziploc bag to protect her phone and a hair elastic by our servers, plus we both got aprons to shield our clothes. It was a bit too early for us to partake but a nearby table of middle aged Chinese ladies had a bucket of cocktails in champagne glasses and giant bottles of beer. Living the dream.

Lost Heaven - Lynda casually described Lost Heaven, a Yunnan (southern China) restaurant popular with expats, as the restaurant from which she would order her last meal. Of her life. You can't get much of a bigger endorsement than that. Even better, it's right by the Bund. You can't go wrong with anything on the menu, especially the Ghost Chicken Salad, Broccoli (for real), and Green Tea Leaf Salad. Pro-tip: ask for the 3rd floor cocktail menu to get delicious (if pricey) drinks. The Yunnan Mule will change your life.

Goodfellas - For our last group meal of the trip, our guest was craving Italian, of all things. We hadn't heard many good things about Italian food in Shanghai so we trusted Trip Advisor to do us a solid. And it did. The three of us went Asian-style, ordering 3 main courses that we all wanted and splitting them (lasagne, pizza, and gnocchi  -gnocchi was the unanimous winner). Free bruchetta, free amazing bread (a rarity in China. Read an amazing rant on Shanghai bakeries that a friend penned on Reddit -warning for profanity- here), and free grappa shots? LOVE. Just down the street from Lost Heaven, it's even closer to the Bund, where we stopped for photos and then a ferry ride back to Pudong. The service was in English and the music was top notch. Future date night destination? You bet.
Mere hours after Lynda told her dad in Canada that the Metro wasn't that busy


Sadly the Irishman and I were working during the day so we mostly left Lynda to her own devices. She hung out with her family and shopped, walked around, and chilled out with Charlie. The stuff we did as a group was certainly not a list of the best things to do in Shanghai, but it was an entertaining couple of weeks regardless!
Ales and tails. Amazing Sunday afternoon.

Cat Eyes Cat Cafe - Stuffed from Hai Di Lao, Lynda and I made our way over to a cat cafe, one of her only requests for activities in Shanghai. We were not disappointed. I have been to a cat & dog cafe in Korea, which was mostly a depressing experience with animals being harassed by patrons and staff, unable to scamper off to bed despite desperate attempts to hide. This cafe was completely different. Chilled out, some of the cats slept while others wandered from table to table for attention. People didn't chase them and it seemed like a nice life for the kitties. Plus, they had good beer and awesome cat themed art. (Credit: We chose this cafe out of the many options because of this blog which features photos of the aforementioned art.)

Marriage Market - We decided to put Lynda's Shanghainese to good use. Sadly, she has a boyfriend so we couldn't try to find Mr. Right for her in this market right in People's Square. Held every weekend, the park is packed with parents, grandparents, and marriage brokers trying to find love for often unknowing or unwilling young adults. It's a bizarre sight with thousands of profiles hung from string, taped to umbrellas, or just lying on the ground while middle aged and elderly people mill about, chatting. Lynda's eavesdropping made the experience all the more interesting as she overheard attempts at matchmaking, such as a mother desperately talking up her daughter's English skills and travels. She did not find it fun; overall she ranked the experience depressing and one she wanted to end quite quickly.

Mr. X - Mr. X is one of the trendy "fun house", "mystery room", etc places that are popping up around the world. Basically, you pay to be locked in a themed room with several of your [likely intoxicated] friends and then solve clues to escape. While my husband has been several times, I chose to be the un-fun partner, as usual, and sit it out. The beauty of not paying to be held captive is that I am already free. Lifehack. Shortcut. Boring person behaviour. Whatever you want to call it, I am happy with my choice. But everyone else had a blast and actually made their way out, which is a rarity.

Jin Mao Tower - We didn't do many of the mandatory Shanghai tourist activities with Lynda (boat tour of the Bund, bus tour of the city, Shanghai Museum, etc) but the Irishman should get tour guide points for taking her up for a drink at Cloud 9, a bar on the 87th floor of the Jin Mao Tower. After cramming onto the public ferry to get back from our Last Supper at Goodfellas, I hopped into a cab to call my bestie in Toronto while the former colleagues got their drink on above the city (well, above some of it, there are a lot of tall buildings here!). Given seats that were not much more than a window ledge, they actually had a perfect view of the Shanghai Tower at night. Plus, you just pay for your drink, no crazy observation fees that other viewing areas charge!

Our Highlight

"People's Court" - Not far from People's Square is a corner where small groups of people can be found on occasion, shouting and listening intently to one another. We have no idea what it's called --if you know, please comment! After the icky marriage market experience, the Irishman and I were up for another round of "use the Shanghainese speaker for our entertainment". This turned out to be our favourite experience in Shanghai. Approaching the corner, Lynda could overhear disputes about property lines or something similarly banal. There were about 4 or 5 groups of about 7 people each spread over the corner. She asked a man on the periphery of one of the groups what was going on. Well, this started a circle of our own!
Making friends near People's Square

People crowded around as the man explained that, twice a week, people get together here to solve minor disputes. He told us that in North America, these types of issues would be solved with just tickets or fines. (This started a whole conversation between the assembled masses about whether or not these types of corners existed in North America with some people insisting that they do.) The group had lots of questions for Lynda, obviously intrigued by a foreigner who can speak Shanghainese. They asked about her family, about where she lived, why she was here... Entertainingly, she doesn't speak Mandarin so some of the non-Shanghainese's questions were translated by myself and the Irishman.

When the swarm grew beyond a comfortable dozen or so people, we made our exit. They bid us a fond farewell with waves and good wishes all around. It was an experience that didn't feel like it could come out of a metropolis like Shanghai. Lynda gave us the coolest interaction we've had so far!

We were almost eaten alive by half a shark piñata converted to a hat.

Other Activities

Like good Shanghai ladies, we got our nails done. For about $6.50, Lynda got a manicure and for around $25, I got a UV gel manicure. We just went to a place outside of the grocery store and they did an amazing job. Estrogen in the house win.

Taobao shopping was a must. Taobao is like eBay's Buy Now feature/Amazon with super quick delivery and low, low prices. You can buy anything from lobster to a car to toilet paper. Obviously Lynda had to invest in half a dozen onesies of varying types. Anyone who has been to Shanghai without acquiring a giraffe or dinosaur onesie hasn't really been to Shanghai.

Karaoke. Terence being epic with a tambourine. Etc.

She and the Irishman ran a 5 km race in her first weekend! Then they went to the aquarium (verdict: missable) and fell asleep at 5 pm. We also hit up an electronics market, fake market, painter's street, food court, karaoke, and end of the school year parties.

All in all, it was a successful first visit! Charlie was very pleased to have another human around to pay attention to him and we had an excuse to splurge on delicious food pretty much every day. Bring on the visitors!
Future visitors, good luck beating this thank you card 

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Shanghai Answers: How are foreigners treated? (Part I)

It's been hard keeping up a blog, not just because I'm busy but because Shanghai is starting to feel like "normal life". I'm sure things happen that would be interesting or strange to someone who doesn't live here, but I'm getting to a point where I stop noticing these things. Which is great for me but not so great for blogging. Sorry y'all.

Yesterday was a pure "foreigner" feeling kind of day, though, so back to the blogging I come! As always, these are generalizations based on my experience so I encourage anyone who disagrees or has differing experiences to add to the comments.

I'm calling this "Part I" because I know there is much more I will learn and observe over my years in Shanghai.

The Good


Firstly, I am thankful on a regular basis for how incredibly patient Chinese people are with non-Chinese speakers. The Chinese tendency to express delight at any laowai's attempt at using Chinese has been extremely helpful as I struggle to learn Mandarin. I imagine if the tables were turned and I were in much of the English speaking world, speaking English as poorly as I speak Chinese, the "learn English" folk would be out in full force. Google Translate & Maps have only recently been enabled on my phone (never buy an Android phone in China...should have been obvious) and I need to express my appreciation to the probably dozens of kind people who have painstakingly tried to give me directions over the past months.


On top of language, dining is a huge cultural marker. I had a lot of anxiety about going out to eat with Chinese people since I read the book Decoding China (highly recommended btw). All of the etiquette surrounding food is a lot to take in. Where to sit, the dance around who pays, how to share, how to politely not eat food you don't like...there are thousands of blog entries and online magazine posts that try to detail it all. There are even courses and workshops for foreigners to try to be polite diners.

Amazing everyone with our inability to transfer noodles from the serving bowl to our plates. 

We've been out to dinner at Chinese restaurants a couple of times with incredibly generous, patient, and overall awesome friends of ours. And it has always gone fine, as far as we can tell. The people we've gone out with work with foreigners and understand that we typically eat very different food and have different customs. While other cities might have more cross-cultural issues, I think, especially with food and language, people in Shanghai give us a lot of leeway. The hardest thing about the meals has been trying to keep up with the number of courses that our hosts order!

Yuyuan Gardens, aka tourist central

The Not So Good

The bumbling foreigner schtick and hospitality of Chinese people doesn't carry over into all aspects of expat life, unfortunately.


Okay, I know I said above that Chinese people are super patient and amazing when it comes to language. It isn't always the case. The concept of  "face", so different from Western conceptions of communication, means that people want to maintain their dignity, even if it means bending the truth, avoiding situations, or outright lying. I could write volumes about "face" and the difficulties for the uninitiated to adapt, but I'll just quickly point out that it can cause Chinese people to avoid foreigners to not worry about language differences. 

Taxi drivers, customer service staff, sales people...if you look like a foreigner, sometimes they will look past you altogether. Some chalk it up to laziness or impatience (and it probably is for some people) but from talking to friends who have been here longer, at least sometimes this has to do with shame at not being able to speak English. This is most frustrating when it comes to taxis that avoid stopping for foreigners but comes in handy with pushy sales people in the streets. 


Foreigner = rich. That's the basic perception in a lot of the world, certainly not unique to China. While we are rich compared to the average person in Shanghai, we don't spend the way your typical expat in Shanghai probably does. As a result, we continually disappoint salespeople who can quickly identify us as laowais. 

Once, while shopping at a fabric market to have clothes made, a vendor yelled me that the $15 reduction in price I was asking for was "nothing in your country". I have had a sales person scream and throw a calculator, telling me that I am not welcome in the market where she works because I didn't have enough money for the boots I asked her about. Partly sales tactic and, I think, partly genuine belief that we are selfishly hoarding our cash.

On a more serious level, medical professionals will also try to get as much money as possible out of us and our insurance companies. The dentist closest to the teacher housing is known for recommending unnecessary and expensive procedures. And the whole reason I decided to write this post is that I was pushed to have an unnecessary surgery yesterday so someone could make a buck. 

I went to a local hospital for a "female exam" not covered by my insurance. It was recommended by a friend of a friend, both Chinese. The Irishman and I thought we were getting great (if hygienically questionable and more expensive than expected) service. I was rushed to the front of every line for tests. The doctor was very patient with my language skills. She made a big show of taking images of my reproductive organs and sympathetically expressed that I would need to have surgery then and there. Feeling a little uneasy with just Google Translate, we called my husband's Chinese coworker, and had her speak to the doctor. When I took the phone back, she told me, "Get out of there right away." 

Scrapping her Saturday plans, and with husband and daughter in tow, she took me to a better, cleaner, non-price gouging hospital where the doctor confirmed what Google had told me on the way: I most definitely do not need surgery of any kind. I went from thinking I was going to need to be sliced open and have my reproductive organs tampered with to being told that, like after every other similar exam I have ever had, I am perfectly fine and healthy. The surgery would have been both cosmetic and internal...think about that. 

The second hospital confirmed that the initial hospital that I visited (PLA 455 Hospital near Hongqiao Road, also known as a place where they killed a guy after taking his money with unproven stem cell treatment) was trying to make money off of me and that army hospitals are known for giving foreigners unnecessary procedures in order to make a buck. My guess is that the original woman who recommended the place hadn't realized how greedy they would be when seeing two expats come in their doors. 

Naive foreigner bubble officially burst. 
Life is good.

Overall, being a laowai is wonderful. But there is a dark side. I don't mind paying an extra dollar or two on items in markets. I get way more out of China than I put back, financially and experientially. That being said, when my health is involved, I've learned to ask for help from locals to ensure I stay safe. 

On top sometimes using foreigners for money, race is an issue. White foreigners especially get unfairly good treatment and respect, sometimes at the expense of Chinese people. I have several anecdotes around this and eventually I'll type up some thoughts!

This post is just the beginning of thinking about my life here and I look forward to more experiences, conversations, and reading that will give me insight into expat life in Shanghai.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Review: 101 Stories for Foreigners to Understand Chinese People

101 Stories for Foreigners to Understand Chinese People is written by Yi S. Ellis, a Shanghai-born woman raised in America. She moved back to China as an adult with her American (presumably white) husband, Bryan. Through the cross-cultural experiences she's had with Bryan interacting with her family and adjusting to life in China, she has compiled a trite list of 101 anecdotes that demonstrate behaviour that Chinese people find weird about Americans/westerners and vice-versa.

As one Goodreads reviewer points out, the book's biggest weakness is that Ellis writes at approximately a 3rd grade level. One of my friends' kids is 5 years old and, with little assistance, she could write (or at least dictate) a more sophisticated guide. Paradoxically, it is a remarkably easy read and painful to get through due to errors. 

This book is not researched in any fashion. If you are looking for insight into the origins of some Chinese behaviours or reflections by the author about their experiences, you have come to the wrong book. 

I found a copy of this book at my work's expat library. I thought it would give me some help navigating a Chinese workplace and I wasn't completely wrong. Some of Ellis's examples of "saving face", especially at the office, have come in handy now that I'm in a Chinese work environment. (With the caveat that these are stories her husband has told her about his experience as a boss with 100% of these stories ending with him devising a clever strategy to mitigate cultural differences. Some of these strategies come across as condescending and verging on racist.) 

About 10% of the content was useful with maybe 1/3 of the stories coming across as interesting. For example, a western friend told me the other day she found it rude and strange that the Chinese CEO of her organization always left events early. That night, I read about high ranking people leaving celebrations early so guests can start partying without feeling judged or leave if they want to without offending their bosses. I'm not sure how accurate this is but it provided a plausible explanation. Conversely, multiple stories about how her husband made mistakes while learning Chinese are neither educational nor interesting.  

All of her stories should be taken with a gigantic grain of salt. She vastly oversimplifies and generalizes. Any middle-aged or older Chinese couple displaying affection, including holding hands, is engaged in infidelity. Blowing one's nose into a tissue offends Chinese people. 

The author's perspective is very limited. Even though she has Chinese parents, speaks Chinese, and has lived in China for several years, she gets around by driver and does all of her shopping in supermarkets. She doesn't want to buy off local vendors because she doesn't know the prices and might get ripped off! God forbid she interact with a Chinese person who isn't hired by her husband or raised her. Of the 101 anecdotes, nearly all are about interactions between her husband and business associates, her family, or their nanny. 

Keeping all of this in mind, I would still recommend this book to people coming to China for the first time. You can read it on the plane, cover to cover. If you already live here, you won't have any major revelations but might get something out of it. Even better, if you have literate children over the age of 9, you can get them to read it and clue you in on the best parts. 

101 Stories is out of print but you can find it in libraries or used.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

when I was a young and happy taitai

My job search has come to an exciting end. Starting tomorrow, I'll be managing two nonprofits in Shanghai and I am delighted, to say the least. It is a bit sad to be leaving behind my taitai life and I figured I would share with you all what exactly that entailed.

I decided to embrace the taitai (housewife) label when we got here. I think it's silly to define a person by their marital status but, frankly, I would have gone mad long ago in England and China if I let it get to me too much. The term "guytai" has been coined for travelling male spouses but it is far less common than foreigner women not working. There have been a few times when I've explained that I came to Shanghai with my husband and "我找工作" ("I'm looking for a job") and the response is, "Oh, so you're a housewife". Even when I opened a bank account on Friday in order to deposit my paycheque, the employee ticked off "housewife" as my employment after hearing I was married. Probably easier than explaining nonprofit manager, I guess.

Okay, fine, taitai it is. But I was a terrible housewife. We have an ayi (housekeeper) who comes for 2 hours each week to clean the floors, bathroom, and kitchen, and iron. Housewife fail #1. Some days I didn't even have dinner ready for when my husband got home! Imagine that. Without kids or even a dog for the first 3+ months, I didn't have much of an "excuse".

So what did I do exactly? One reason I resurrected this blog was to share what I was up to. This isn't quite advice, but if you're someone thinking about how to fill their days, it might help you brainstorm.
My husband loves my cooking

Housewifely things

While I got a wonderful break from the full-time grind, the Irishman didn't do too badly either. Cooking, dishes, groceries, other errands -things we normally share- I did a vast majority of. (Anyone want to take bets for how long it takes for us to cave and hire the ayi for more days per week?) We've hosted people at our place for dinner once or twice a week since we've arrived. And before Christmas and our trip to Harbin, I was able to park in front of Netflix and spend afternoons knitting. Luxury! Plus, I got to do a lot of yoga at home. Does that tick off enough taitai boxes that I'm forgiven for not doing any ironing all year?

I'm not allowed to do this anymore

Learning Chinese

Learning Chinese has been the most time consuming, rewarding, and expensive thing I've done since we moved here. Within a few weeks of arriving, I started classes, 3 hours a day, Monday-Friday. In order to keep up with the superhuman Johanna (18 year old German girl fresh out of high school who remembers everything) who I had class with, I studied for another 5 hours a day. No joke. Flashcards galore. Husband aggravating post-it notes all over the dining room. It paid off but I was definitely burned out after 10 weeks!

I took December off from class, doing a bit of review here and there, to let my brain recover from what amounted to 3 months of information overload. This year, I'm back at it but for fewer hours of tutoring per week.
Coin purse purchased for $3 on a taitai [grocery] shopping spree!

Other learning

I'm just finishing up Critical Perspectives on Management, a great MOOC (Massive Open Online Course, Wikipedia has great info about them) offered free through Coursera. It took about 4-6 hours per week to do readings, watch lectures, and complete exams. The professor was a capitalism-critical Canadian teaching in Spain so that may have added to its appeal...

I had tried to take MOOCs in the past but with work (and wedding) commitments, I never managed to complete one until now. I am registered to retake a free course in two weeks on behavioural psychology which I did all the reading for last year but no exams. We'll see if I can manage it once I'm working full-time again!

I highly recommend looking into MOOCs. The range of topics is endless. They are often completely free (e.g. management course), only require you purchase a textbook (e.g. psychology class), or are very low cost. MOOC List is an aggregated list of courses and start dates that you can peruse. Check it out!
Trying to sabotage my job search

Job hunting

Job hunting involved a mix of networking and finding gigs on CareerEngine and LinkedIn. The actual hunting bit, following up on business cards garnered at events and checking job postings, wasn't very time consuming. There weren't that many jobs out there in the marketing or non-profit spheres that weren't super specific to an industry or had language requirements I couldn't fill.

Early on in my search, I interviewed for one job that was out of my field. In the interview, the manager gave me a speech about how my resume needs a job on there that has lasted for several years. Rather than inspire me to commit to the role when he offered it to me, he made me realize that my next role needed to be something long-term that I could build off of. (Yes, I am very lucky that I was in a position to be this picky.)

Interviewing was the time consuming bit. I had several interviews before I landed this job. I did a lot of preparation for each interview: getting advice from friends and contacts, researching the organizations, thinking over my own work experience and history, coming up with suggestions and proposals. I had to prepare full social media proposals for a couple of the jobs and a few gave me more than one interview. Unemployment fills a surprising amount of time!
Buy a bear, help save a life!


I spend a lot of time with my foster dog. This is clear. No need to go on.

I also have volunteered with Chi Fan for Charity, Heart to Heart, and Bean in Shanghai. And I've kept up my role as digital media consultant/newsletter director for the Alliance Against Modern Slavery in Canada. I've been volunteering regularly practically since I could walk and Mama Cruz would be most disappointed in me if I didn't keep up the family tradition.
I should have starred in Real Housewives of Shanghai. So fashionable.

Explore Shanghai

I didn't do very much of this, especially after the air quality plummeted and Charlie became my stay at home buddy. I had a couple of mini-field trips but otherwise was mostly at home, studying. Either I could go out and lose momentum in my classes or I could stay in and lose the opportunity to visit things in off-peak hours. I'm okay with my decision; I'd rather go visit things with friends, anyway!

Lazy: celebrating a cancelled day of classes

Final thoughts before I enter the workforce

The hardest thing about taitai life (without kids) for me is the lack of stuff to talk about. Critical Perspectives on Management and hours of Chinese studying don't make captivating dinner conversation. I have been reminded by my husband that I talk about the dog a bit more than anyone wants to hear. Sorry everybody.

Loss of identity and marital trouble seem to be issues that other couples face when one partner is a non-working traveling spouse. This article, which is hidden behind a membership thingy now, basically advises women to get a job. While I was lucky enough to find a job in my field, I think that's a bit harsh. If we had moved somewhere where English wasn't used at all and I wasn't employable, I would like to think that I could still maintain my identity, build a skill set(s), and keep a strong marriage.

The main takeaway about why my experience worked out so well is two-fold. Firstly, I had a supportive partner who was 100% on board with the plan for me to invest in learning Chinese as much as possible from the get-go and to not settle for a job that wouldn't be a career builder. In addition to that, I had "jobs". Every day, with few exceptions, I studied Chinese, took care of my dog, and cooked. Some other traveling spouses (I can't seriously say "family relocation managers") start their own small businesses, take courses, explore the city, make art/write/craft, or freelance. Especially if the non-working situation isn't a permanent plan, coming away with skills, hobbies, and experience that will serve you in "life after staying at home" is crucial. Repatriation is often harder than moving out here in the first place, but that's another entry for another day.

If you have any tips for staying fulfilled and happy while being a traveling spouse, please add them in the comments!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

On helping a newly blind, separation anxiety ridden foster dog with incontinence

You read that right.
Trying to pack himself & his rope

Rewind to before Christmas. Charlie was a happy camper who only needed to wear his cone on walks and when we weren't around. He had bonded with us and had settled into his comfortable little life.

The day before we left for the holidays, he was neutered. The poor guy returned home from the vet, crying and fragile. We showered him with love and let him sleep in our room. He was sore but still giving kisses and tag wags.

Our amazing friend Laure dog sat for us while we were in Europe for Christmas. They had a blast and I was warned I would be coming home to an even more spoiled pup than I was used to. She was able to remove the cone for good after the first week. Great news.

Unfortunately, the day before the Irishman was coming home, the rescue manager's suspicion that the initial surgery was done poorly was confirmed. Laure was shocked to see his "healed" eye...not be healed. To say the least.

The next morning, he was picked up by the rescue to have another surgery on the eye. When he was delivered to our place, he was not the pretty pup we were used to. By the time I landed in Shanghai, two days later, I had 10 missed messages from the Irishman about Charlie. He kept peeing on the floor, crying, acting weird. He was worried we wouldn't be able to handle him. My boys were having a rough go of it.

When I walked in the door, you have never seen two happier gentlemen.

Charlie was super attached to me. It was a good feeling, for a couple of days. If I left the room, he would cry. If I left him on the balcony, he would howl. When we went to bed, he was inconsolable. Before Christmas, he was very quiet, only growling a bit when playing tug of war.

He kept having accidents in the house, sometimes even after 8 walks a day. My schedule was tied to him. If he wasn't lying on the couch, he probably had to pee. We initially thought this was just separation anxiety. He would pee right after the Irishman got home. He would pee if I was in the kitchen. He would pee if he was crying because I wasn't right beside him.

Back in his space

Dealing with his separation anxiety

Within a few days, we knew we had to take this seriously and that it wasn't going away on its own. Despite me being home all day, he was stressing out. The following helped a ton with getting him re-adjusted and believing that we weren't going to abandon him any time soon:
  • Leaving him in his space. We let him stay inside a lot in the first few days we were back. He would cry if we left him outside. But then when we put him out overnight, he would pee and wail. We discovered if we left him on the balcony for the vast majority of the day, he would be much more relaxed at bed time. 
  • We stopped making a fanfare out of coming home or leaving. When we came home, we would just ignore him for about 10 minutes. For 20 minutes before leaving, we wouldn't pay attention to him. We have softened this since, but it was crucial for the first couple of weeks.
  • I tired him out. His walks doubled in length. I walked him before I left the house to do anything so he wouldn't have energy to get upset. I would walk him right after the Irishman got home from work so he couldn't spend time freaking out with excitement at him being home. By the time we got back, he forgot he'd been gone all day. After his pre-bed walk, he would be tuckered out and he would forget to cry. Eventually, he pretty much stopped crying altogether. 
  • We bought him more toys. He was better able to entertain himself while we were gone. He loves his squeaky ball so much that we can just squeak it on the balcony, he'll race over to get it, and we can exit smoothly without any drama.
  • Before bed, we would give him a bone to distract him. Sometimes he would just save it and wait til I was around to eat it the next day, but at least momentarily he would be occupied.

He can't see it. 

Figuring out he was blind

I hypothesized that boredom was part of the crying so we bought some more toys to occupy his day. If we were the only thing interesting in his life, of course he would cry if we were gone. However, buying the toys didn't just curb his boredom. It revealed to us that somewhere between us leaving and returning, he had gone completely blind. He loved his toys instantly but couldn't find them unless his paw or nose bumped into it. Even if it was directly in front of his eye, he would still walk in circles trying to find it. 

He would anticipate curbs and stairs unlike before the break. I thought it was just a new cute habit, lifting his paws a few steps before he would actually need to step up. Now, I feel like an idiot not having identified that he couldn't see the steps at all and was just going off memory.

This realization was bitter sweet. It explained a lot of the crying. A lot of the strange behaviour. A lot of his stress when we weren't directly touching him. Instead of feeling like we'd ruined him by leaving him for Christmas, we knew he was adjusting to losing his vision.

Probably has to pee

Figuring out he had a UTI

A couple of weeks after we had returned from Christmas, things were starting to return to normal. Less crying, less stress...but he was still needing 8 walks a day to not have an accident. And even then, he sometimes did. We had gone from 1 or 2 accidents a day to 1 every few days. Progress, but far from ideal. Before the break, he'd had only had 2 accidents: the first day he came home and right after he'd been fixed.

Once all of the other issues had been corrected, we concluded it must be a UTI. A course of nausea-inducing antibiotics later, we finally had Charlie at a livable new normal. 

Helping him navigate his blindness

  • He has a hard time figuring out where sounds come from. If they are closer to the floor or we tap our hardwood floors, it helps him to find us. I don't call him to come from very far because he gets lost along the way, turning around if he bumps into things. 
  • I'm especially helpful when we are walking now to make sure he doesn't bump into anything.
  • We had to train him to stop mouthing/gently biting. He started using his mouth to "see", lightly biting our clothing, hands, etc. After weeks of getting frustrated by it, we used a simple [and effective] strategy to get him to stop. While he wasn't hurting us, we want to make sure he can be adopted by a family with children and not scare people meeting him for the first time.
    1. I yelped like a puppy when he would bite too hard on my hand. He would stop immediately. This only worked early on when he was biting a bit harder. This then led to him really gently putting his teeth on us.
    2. A loud "hey!" would get him to stop, stunned. But once we started petting him again, within a minute or two he would be back to mouthing.
    3. He loves having his squeaky ball in his mouth. We love petting him without dealing with his teeth. Win-win. When he would start opening his mouth as if he was looking for our hands to mouth, we would just pop the ball in his mouth and carry on. He's started to just approach us for petting with the ball already in his mouth.
    4. The most effective way we have put a stop to mouthing is by giving him timeouts. This really has sent the message home. The moment he mouths, we call him a "bad dog" and put him in his bed. We leave him there for a minute or two and then call him out and go back to playing. We went from needing to do this over and over again on the first day to by the second day only needing to do it twice over the course of the entire day.
After our weekend trip to Harbin, he regressed a bit with the mouthing, but we're back to 1 or 2 timeouts a day and he seems to be getting the message.

"Stay" face


Going blind has taken a toll. He's still loving and wiggly but more anxious than he ever was about us being gone. He sometimes whimpers for a minute or so when we go to bed and if one of us comes home after he's been put to bed, he will cry.

Overall, after a few weeks of tough love (and antibiotics!), he's become a joy to foster again. We've taught him some tricks. He hasn't quite figured out why I want him to shake a paw...We're working on it.

He'll be attending adoption days again soon and I'm going to be posting online to try to find him a home. We had lucked out before Christmas. Since then he has tested our patience, taken a lot of our time, and generally pushed our limits. Ultimately, paying attention to the signs he was giving us, pushing him to do better, and loving the crap out of him has paid off in a big way. The family that keeps him forever is very fortunate! Hopefully the next Charlie update will be his adoption story.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Thoughts for people considering a move abroad

It's been one of those up and down expat weeks. My first niece is getting prepared to make her grand entrance into the world in Vancouver. I'd really like to be able to swing home for a bit to give a loved one some face-to-face cheerleading. The realization that most of the people I spend most of my time with in Shanghai are going to be leaving in just a matter of months has hit hard, too. It's been rainy, the dog regressed a bit after we were gone for the weekend, the air quality is back to dangerous, dental bills were much higher than we were quoted...just one of those weeks.

None of this makes me regret coming here, of course. After spending way too much time watching "Let it Go" covers (Christina Bianco and Lexi Walker are to blame for about 2 hours of non-productivity on Wednesday...) and chatting with friends in Canada, I'm getting back into my student-dog mama-housewife groove.

But it has gotten me thinking about the choice to live away. In our case, to live 7-15 timezones away from our family and best friends and to live off one income while paying for courses for me. This isn't the first time we've chosen the expat life and it probably won't be the last.

A friend of mine in North America recently got in touch to ask for some guidance as she decides whether or not to take a contract in a rural Third World context. She had worked hard to get the job offer and it seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime. But when the reality of moving to the other side of the world and leaving behind urban western life hit, she started to question whether it was such a good idea.

From my own experience and seeing what expat friends have gone through, I told her to think about:

The family & friends you have

One of the major reasons friends have cut contracts short or don't accept them at all is related to family. Life doesn't pause when you go away: people get sick, people die, people are born. It's a tough call that we all have to make before going away. Are you okay with supporting your ill parent via phone/Skype? Will you never forgive yourself if your nieces and nephews grow up knowing you as a face on a computer screen? This year and next, we'll be missing some friends' weddings in Canada and Ireland because of the distance.

Our nephew did his part by being born just before we left the UK

If you're moving with family, what is the job situation for the adults? Will one partner not work? Trailing spouses (or the euphemism of the day "family relocation managers") face their own challenges, sometimes pausing their own careers and facing the stresses of maintaining an identity. 

I don't need to remind any parent that the destination has to offer an environment that they would want their children to grow up in. Some friends have decided to leave Shanghai because they have small children and the air quality has diminished since they first moved here. Education, safety, culture...these issues suddenly become way more important when impressionable young future creators are part of the package. 

A couple of years ago I was confident I was going to be offered a communications position for an NGO in Ghana. They told me I wouldn't be able to bring the Irishman with me. I withdrew. For me, I know the life I want includes living in the same place as the Irishman and I would regret separating. Even now, as I go through another round of job hunting headaches, I am so glad I followed my gut rather than fill my resume. Other married friends we know are temporarily split across continents to save money for their future. That's what they've worked out is best for their family. What's best for yours? 

The family you want

One of the big reasons that people decide to go "home", even with fulfilling jobs and in living in an environment they enjoy, is that they want to start a family. The dating scene when you're an expat can be quite dire. People are coming and going all the time. As my friend is single and wanting to look for a relationship, I reminded her that dating in a rural context can be really tough, especially when she doesn't plan to stay for more than 2 years. If she's not willing to potentially put a big pause on dating, she's likely to regret moving away.

If you have a final destination in mind where you want to settle down and want to have kids, keeping in mind that you eventually want to "get sprogged up", as one of my friends likes to say, is important when considering timelines for going abroad. If you are partnered, you may want to give birth/adopt/settle down in your home environment, closer to family and friends. Especially when hitting late 20's and onward, thinking about settling down isn't about selling out, it's about not having regrets.
I guess it worked out okay

Of course, many of us find our partners because we left. Thank you husband who once moved to Canada for a "temporary" 9 month stint! A few of my friends have met their partners (and one fiance!) in Latin America in the past year or so. It does happen, but if you're going to regret meeting only a handful of fellow singletons over the course of your stay abroad or want to start a family soon with grandparents nearby, keep this mind when looking at jobs and flights. 

Your lifestyle

Like to go clubbing? To the cinema? To bars? To a fully equipped fancy gym? To familiar restaurants? Depending on where you move, these might not be available. What will you do to fill your time?

I admit when I moved to a small community in rural Guatemala, I didn't think about this enough. Living by myself, with no internet, in a long distance relationship, lacking in friends, I was often bored. Really bored. The appeal of reading for 5+ hours a day faded quite quickly as my social butterfly persona was starved. I went from an energetic, out-going 20 year old to shy and self-conscious when faced with a massive language barrier. I needed to suck it up and work towards the lifestyle I craved, namely, a social one*. (Or, maybe, not take a job in a rural area in a language I had no experience with.)

Since then, I've reflected on what it is that keeps me sane on a day to day basis: feeding people, going out for drinks, visiting museums and galleries, and continually meeting new people. Because of this, I wouldn't move somewhere again where no one spoke a language I didn't have a basic grasp of (thankfully English, French, Spanish, and Mandarin are all on that list now!) and I wouldn't live in a rural area. Other, more linguistically talented, adventurous or introverted people, are better suited to quickly learn a local language, take social risks, and/or spend large amounts of time alone without sending weird, depressing postcards and letters to friends around the world (sorry about that, y'all). 

Carousels are also very important to avoid culture shock

Even if the opportunity seems wonderful, it doesn't mean that you'll regret turning it down or be able to enjoy your life while you're there. There's a difference between getting out of your comfort zone and crossing a line where your quality of life suffers unnecessarily. International adventures may look fun in photos but if you can't reconcile the sacrifices to your family and go to bed every night feeling like you're missing something, it probably isn't worth it. 

For my friend, no matter how much of an honour it would be to take that job, she can't take it lightly. Whether she takes it or not, I know that she's kept these considerations in mind and is unlikely to regret her choice.

My wonderful friend Leslie Campbell, who has lived in rural Indonesia for the past year and a half, offers a semi-counterpoint

"There is also something to be said for the often excruciating growth spurt you go through after finding yourself in a cultural/lingusitic/professional/etc context you weren't quite prepared for beforehand. Flexibility, open-mindedness and a sense of adventure go a very long way, but the stretching process can be quite a painful one.

It certainly isn't for everyone, not least the faint of heart, but in my experience the more difficult the journey the more you gain personally from making it to the other side in one piece. [as over-trodden and clichéd as it is]

I suppose that's easier to say as someone who's just finishing up and preparing to go home after a long term stint in a lifestyle context that is about as far from what I envisioned for myself in my mid-20s as it's possible to be (Full disclosure: I was singing a different tune 6 months ago). Nonetheless, I think that spending the last 18 months clubbing, going to fancy bars, gyms and new restaurants would have yielded an approximately equivalent amount of happiness but a tiny fraction of the personal and professional growth. But maybe that's just me."

*this did happen in the end but I got sick and was sent back to Canada within a month of making friendships. Shucks. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Welcoming Charlie: Bringing an injured foster dog into our home

If Charlie wasn't injured, we probably never would have met him. The lovely rescue volunteer who found him has several other dogs and, with Charlie's fresh wounds and cone of shame, he couldn't be around these other pups lest they reopen his stitches.

Bringing home any new animal is an adjustment for all involved. Nervousness, confusion, stress -it's all part of the transition. As an animal foster home, we'll have to get used to that. In Charlie's case, there were some added elements due to his recent car accident that left him missing an eye and with a cone on his head. His vision was obviously drastically restricted from what it had previously been. His stitches were itchy and he was in pain. Plus, he had to deal with a Canadian and an Irishman speaking English around him all the time, likely a new experience.

In this post, I'm just going to talk about how we initially introduced him to our home.

The first few days

Day 1!

We set up a "bed" made of a yoga towel and one of Cathal's dirty t-shirts. He figured out instantly that it was meant for him. We initially included a cushion but he used it to scratch his wound so we removed it. He eventually added one of my slippers to this set up, which I didn't have the heart to take away for a few days. He didn't chew it, just put it in his spot. The little wiggler knows how to pull the heart strings!

For the first few days, I had the luxury of being at home 24/7. I pet him, talked to him, and played with him pretty much all day. 
Answer to to the question: What do you do all day?

We bought him a rope to play tug of war which was wildly successful, especially when he would get overcome with itchiness or pain. Distracting him from trying to scratch through the cone or crying was usually just a matter of pulling out the rope. (Some people are against playing tug of war with dogs. I think it has been great for Charlie and will explain more in a post about toys for blind dogs.)

On our walks, I talked to him the whole time, getting him used to my voice and his name. He was understandably disoriented and would often stop during walks. Several times per walk he would stare into the distance or walk in circles; we would give him a gentle touch on the back to remind him what we were doing and then he would snap back into focus. Almost all of our walks took place in our apartment compound so he was consistently walking in the same place, getting used to familiar surroundings. 

Giving him his own space

For his own safety, we realized after a couple of days, Charlie could not be allowed to roam the apartment. He had discovered he could use edges of furniture to scratch his eye, causing the wound to reopen. Plus, he kept walking into things and didn't seem to be learning the layout very well. 

Lucky for us, we have a fully glass-enclosed balcony. As we're on the second floor with trees right outside our place, our view is terrible. We don't use the balcony for anything except housing our washer and dryer. The balcony retains heat really well and is often warmer than the rest of the house. Voila, Charlie had a home. 

Actually totally happy, I swear

We moved his bed and used treats and food to coax him outside. Throughout the day I would go outside to pet him and play tug of war. He got used to it very quickly and would make his way out there naturally after walks. It also gave him a view of the outside compound where he would watch people and dogs walk by all day.

Similar to crating (which wouldn't have been doable with the giant cone), this gave him his own little dog cave to call his own.

Realizing his limits

In the first couple of weeks, the rescue occasionally had to take him away to go to appointments. When he came back, he went through a bit of stress all over again. One day we took him on a walk outside of the compound right after he returned from a vet appointment. He became very distressed and vomited on the sidewalk. Lesson learned: especially on days when he had been jolted out of his comfort zone, we would keep him in his routine, on familiar ground.

His vision was obviously an issue. On walks, I tried to give him fairly free reign to sniff around wherever he saw fit. Sadly, he kept walking full speed into low lights and rubbish bins in our compound. We got into a routine of quick tugs on his leash to keep him out of harm's way or to warn him that there was curb.

Stairs were very stressful for him. To get out of our apartment, we used the ramp for weeks before we pushed him to try the stairs. Overall, I think giving him time to feel comfortable first before attempting things like stairs, taking him to new places, and teaching him tricks was key to keeping him calm and happy.

All in all, Charlie's transition into our home was not bad at all. Shoving pills down his throat and squeezing antibacterial fluid into his eye socket twice daily were not the most fun for any of us. But I think by showering him with love and creating stability, he was as comfortable and content as any one-eyed cone-laden pup could be.

Unfortunately this idyllic scenario was not to last. More on that another day!

If you have any other tips for helping an injured foster dog feel at home in your home, please comment below!

Monday, February 10, 2014

Shanghai Answers: What's Chinese New Year like in Shanghai?

When I refer to New Year in this post, it should be obvious that I am talking about Lunar New Year and not January 1. I stuck around Pudong (the quieter side of the city) for most of the break so my experience may not carry over to Puxi. 

This year, Chinese Lunar New Year/Spring Festival was on Friday, January 31. On the Tuesday before New Year, a friend and I went to a screening of Last Train Home, a documentary about migrant workers who make the annual journey to their hometown for Chinese New Year. It's an incredible film that I highly recommend. It's exhausting, depressing, and shocking. A man interviewed at one point in the film says something along the lines of if they didn't go back home for Chinese New Year, there would be no meaning to life. And when you see the thousands of people in the film trying to get home each year, despite delays, packed trains, and limited funds, you can see how many people feel this way.
This BBC article talks about this year's rush to get tickets
Chinese New Year is the world's largest migration with around 3.6 billion trips taken in China this year with hundreds of millions of travellers. (In contrast, about 3 million pilgrims per year attend the Hajj.)
Baidu, China's Google, generated a moving map of New Year trips. (Image from CNN)
Most of the traffic from the big cities is outward as people go back to their hometowns. Shanghai welcomed about 3.62 million tourists over the break, a drop in the bucket compared to how many of its 24 million inhabitants left.

What people tell you about Chinese New Year in Shanghai

  • The city is ghost town
  • Fireworks will be going 24/7 for weeks
  • Stock up on essentials beforehand because so many things are closed
  • It is impossible to get a taxi
  • Lots of conflicting things about what nights are the most popular and whether public displays will be held. 

My experience

It's a lot like Christmas. About 2 months beforehand, stores had already started stocking up on decorations, hongbao (red envelopes you give to people with money inside), gift boxes, and red underwear (worn to prevent bad luck if your zodiac sign isn't compatible with the new year's sign). Before Christmas, the lines were already pretty nuts with people stocking up on niánhuò (New Year's stuff).

In the weeks before the holiday, pop up shops selling fireworks appeared. Because everyone goes home, fewer and fewer people were around as January wore on. Rolling suitcases abounded. Taxis became harder to get as bicycle parking spaces opened up.

The city was generally delightful. The Metro was still running but with far fewer people than normal. Walking Charlie in the compound, instead of the dozen or more dogs we typically see in a day, I might see one or two.

The fireworks situation is not what I expected. The name of the game here is SOUND. (How else would we chase off the evil spirits? Duh.) Epic, beautiful shows are not particularly common Individuals in the street or the middle of apartment compounds light firecrackers or boxes of fireworks that display for only a couple of minutes. The smog was so bad on New Year's Eve that people who shelled out to get good views of the Bund area were, reportedly, disappointed. Over the course of the week, I did see some really pretty fireworks from various friends' apartments; I doubt any of these colourful displays lasted even 10 minutes.

Also, people greatly exaggerated the frequency with which they would be going off. It's not a constant stream and only lasted about 11-12 days. Maybe 20 times per day I would have heard something going off, more on New Year's (starting at midnight) and the Fifth Day (God of Wealth's birthday. Gotta get his attention so you can get cash this year!). I sort of expected a constant din that I would get used to. Instead, I woke with a start several times per night almost every night. Next year, I think we'll try to go away for the break so we can actually get some rest!

Tips if you are going to be in Shanghai over Lunar New Year

  • If you have a housekeeper/ayi, it is expected that you will give 1 month's salary in a hongbao. She will also get a week or two off, still paid her regular salary for that time. If you have a contract, that may even be written into it. I presume this is the same for those of you with a driver, but I don't have experience with that. You can prorate this to the amount of time the person has worked for you if it hasn't been for the full year. *Remember to not give an odd # amount or any number related to 4 as those are bad luck.
  • Ear plugs. They weren't enough for me to sleep through the night but I have to believe they were better than nothing. You can get them at Decathlon in a pinch. 
  • Be especially careful when you go to markets. For some reason, the Irishman and other friends had issues with being lied to/ripped off more than normal around the holiday time. The Irishman was buying several tops to give as gifts and was told they were the size he asked for. When he got home and took a closer look...not so much. 
  • On another negative note, I have heard that theft increases before the holiday, so watch your stuff. 

Birth Control for the Revolution at the Propaganda Poster Art Centre
  • Explore the city over the holiday! The Metro is open and less crowded than normal. Take advantage! I visited the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Propaganda Poster Art Centre. Note: even if the attraction publicizes that it's open on public holidays, it might not be. The Museum of Contemporary Art had that plastered all over its website but was still closed on New Year's Day. 
  • Be aware that your shopping options will be a bit more limited. The supermarket was open the whole time so we didn't have to stock up on any necessities. If you're picky, though, be warned that products won't get restocked with their normal frequency. Smaller stalls and shops ranged from being open the whole time to being closed for 3 weeks. 
  • Most expat bars and restaurants stay open but are not busy. I went with a group from Reddit to Abbey Road, a popular Puxi spot. It was half empty and we called ahead to negotiate free fries and shots! If you're taking a large group (we were 30-ish) somewhere, call ahead and see if you can get perks for coming during an off-peak time of year.

Am I missing anything? Comment below!