Sunday, July 19, 2009

New kid on the blog

Ok, I swear if I’d thought of that title earlier I’d have posted this sooner.

Or maybe not. Many, many apologies for the long hiatus, but as most of you know by now, it’s been nearly a month since Baby A exploded into our lives, a full two and a half weeks earlier than we expected him. One minute I’m waddling around with nothing to blog about because I’m so big I can hardly get off the sofa, and the next there’s simply not a spare moment which isn’t being literally eaten up by a very small person with a very large personality. Amazing how things can change in the blink of an eye.

Babies share so many characteristics with the typical Chinese. Both sleep a lot, make a lot of noise, have no consideration for others, and never do what you want at the time you want them to do it. But you can’t help loving them for their hilarious wide-eyed innocence and cheek. So perhaps China is the best place to have one – at least you get some practice. On the other hand there are a number of aspects which I’d recommend taking into consideration, should anyone out there ever, ever contemplate such a thing themselves.

1. Medical. Ok so this isn’t anything to do with China but I had to get a moan in. Far be it from me to break the conspiracy of silence which seems to prevent those who’ve had children from warning those who haven’t just how bloody awful childbirth is. I mean, I suppose the future of the human race might be at stake. But let me just say this. You know the scene in ‘This is Spinal Tap’ where they realise they’ve put the measurements for Stonehenge in inches instead of feet? Well, I imagine something very similar must have happened when God, or the elves, or whoever designed people, first saw the prototype for a baby’s head and the area from which it has to emerge. You can just see the guy’s face when the awful realisation struck that he’d made a mistake in the blueprint which nobody had noticed, and it was too late to change it. You can hear him thinking ‘Shit. Oh, it’ll be all right’ (without much conviction), and hurriedly deleting all the relevant files so that no-one would realise it was him that had screwed up.

Well all I can say is, I still can’t walk after 4 weeks, so I hope they caught him and fired him. Also, as bad luck would have it, my, er, issues coincided with one of Peter's mosquito bite episodes. He's violently allergic to the little blighters and swells up in suppurating buboes which throb, pulsate and pustulate with a life of their own, usually in several places at once. All in all the two of us spent about a fortnight looking - and feeling - as though we'd been in a car crash. Judging by the size of me, in my case I can only assume the other vehicle involved was a lorry carrying a large consignment of cakes and chocolate, all of which I felt compelled to eat while I lay by the side of the road waiting for the ambulance.

2. Logistical. Getting to the hospital at 3am while in labour was supposed to be organised in advance. Big Boss was going to lay on a car. Drivers were to be primed and ready to rush to our assistance. Did this happen? No. Peter sent Big Boss an email the week before to remind him, but BB was away and by the time he got back, Baby A had decided enough was enough and popped out. I think the email is still unanswered. So we had to flag down a taxi. At least it wasn’t raining.

Actually there was no problem and I don’t think the taxi driver even realised what was going on. Not so the SECOND taxi driver who had to take us BACK to the hospital late at night after I’d been discharged, in some pain from a bladder infection and muscle spasms in my hip. We had the baby in a car seat but I don’t think the driver noticed, so we were convinced he thought I was in labour, the way I was groaning and clutching my (still somewhat large) stomach! At any rate he raced through the Shanghai Friday night traffic at a pace befitting Starsky & Hutch and looked mighty relieved when we arrived. Thank goodness Baby didn’t suddenly wake up & make a noise; I think the poor bloke would have had a heart attack, thinking I’d just delivered on his back seat!

3. Social. The Chinese love babies, especially western babies. It can get rather annoying to be continually cooed over, and when the baby gets older, people apparently demand photos all the time. However, the most irritating thing is that they also have very strong opinions when it comes to baby care. Chinese wisdom recommends, among other things, not leaving the house at all for the first three months, keeping their feet covered at all times, even on sweltering hot days, and dressing them in bizarre crotchless trousers rather than using nappies. Expat mothers regularly complain of being stopped on the street by Chinese wifies offering advice and admonishments. So far though my main gripe is that everyone seems to think he’s a girl, for reasons unknown – even when he’s wearing a manly blue babygro with a picture of a digger on it.

4. Administrative. My feelings regarding a certain international medical insurance provider are on record, so I’ll refrain from repeating them here. I’ll say only this. It took fourteen (international) phone calls, plus several emails, to get a policy set up for Baby. Fourteen. And even then he’s barely covered for his vaccinations and well-baby checkups. It’s a bloody scandal.

The other amusing/frustrating aspect of having a child abroad is that you have to get it a passport and visa more or less immediately. Someone hasn’t thought through the implications of having hormonal women turn up at offices to fill in forms with short deadlines. I almost shouted at the British Consul for not having something suitable for me to lean on. But the fact that our son will have to endure THIS Photoshopped marvel

not only as his passport photo for the next five years but as endless humiliation potential for the rest of his life just about compensates.

Granny is due to visit from the UK on Thursday for two weeks, so the blog’s maternity leave may last a little longer yet, but fret not – we’ll be back in full force before you know it.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Just when you thought it was safe...

…WATER reared its ugly, pointy-toothed head again this week. Peter, back in Harbin for the week, went home from work on Wednesday to find there was absolutely no running water in the flat. He called Kevin to find out what was going on. Kevin phoned building management and came back with the response that it was switched off for ‘routine maintenance’ (nice of them to warn us) and that it would be back on ‘hopefully before Saturday’.

‘SATURDAY???!!!!!!’ shrieked Peter (who was flying back to Shanghai on Friday and didn’t fancy leaving toilets unflushed and taps in a dubious on/off position). ‘I’m sorry’, said Kevin glumly. ‘I don’t know what to say to make you happy’. Poor lad, he always takes it personally. In the event, it was back on by the time Peter got up on Thursday morning, but not before he’d texted me at 10.30pm saying he was going to bed because he was ‘so depressed about it’.

Then on Friday morning, I tried to turn on a tap in Shanghai, to find that the water had gone off here too! It had been fine half an hour earlier so I suspected it was somehow connected to the loud drilling, banging, and overpowering smell of solvent which had all been emanating from the flat upstairs since 8am. I went back to bed and by the time I woke up we were back on tap. What is it with these people though? Back home, if your water is scheduled to be switched off for five minutes you get a note through the door a week in advance. Here, the notion that they might be inconveniencing anyone simply doesn’t seem to cross their minds.

The chief species of water inconveniencing me at the moment, however, is that which I’m lugging around in my belly and my legs. A couple of Sundays ago I looked down to find my bump had undergone a sudden growth spurt and seemed to be sticking out several inches further than it had done that morning. At 33 (or is it 34 – they can’t decide) weeks pregnant, I am now the size of a house – no, make that a largish hotel - and need a crane to levitate me off the sofa most nights. Not much fun when the temperature is already hovering around the 30 degree mark – although believe it or not, Harbin was actually hotter than Shanghai this week. This – coupled with the frustrations of an internet connection which is becoming increasingly slow for unknown reasons – explains my lack of blogging recently. It’s a long walk to the computer these days, and this desk ain’t big enough for the both of us!

The size of my tum caused some consternation last time I visited the hospital. ‘You gain too much weight!’ ‘Too much eat!!’ (charming), ‘You have big baby! We must check!’. One ultrasound later, and Baby was revealed not to be a monster - apart from the head, which was already 92% of the size of a full-term baby’s! – nor was chocolate the culprit, or not the sole one anyway. No, my problem, it appears, is ‘too much fluid’. (Bloody water. I’m telling you.) So now they want to do another ultrasound tomorrow to make sure the fluid levels have stabilised. ‘But if your belly suddenly get bigger, call us and come in STRAIGHT AWAY!’ They certainly know how to stress me out.

The trouble is that having grown up with the NHS, to me the words ‘I’d like to run some further tests’ strike fear into the heart. British doctors only ever say this if they think there might be something seriously wrong with you. Otherwise their standard advice is ‘Take two paracetamol, go to bed and ring me in the morning’. So I’ve been having some trouble adjusting to the ‘We test because we can’ approach of private medicine, especially that practised by American-trained doctors and aimed mainly at American patients. I finally understand those episodes of ER where the storyline involved the docs haranguing some poor unfortunate who needed an arm transplant or whatever but couldn’t afford it because their insurance didn’t cover it.

In fact most of my preconceptions about private medicine have been turned on their heads. There are no hushed, white rooms or smiling nurses gliding about offering you biscuits. On the contrary, it’s all a bit like ER really, minus the shouting, the shooting and the helicopter crashes. Time being money, the doctors seem to see about six patients at once and scurry about between multiple consulting rooms. They run vast swathes of tests for everything under the sun, with no apparent consideration of the cost to you or actual probability that you might have the condition concerned.

When, in my naivety, I tried to refuse a certain test on the grounds that I didn’t think I needed it, it was too expensive, and, hey, actually, wasn’t I the ‘customer’ and therefore had the right to decline anything I didn’t want, all hell nearly broke loose. It became apparent that they had never encountered such a response before. The nurses were highly confused, the doctor embarked on a quite unwarranted prophesy of doom, and in the end I felt so bullied that I backed down, on the understanding that this was ‘absolutely the last blood test’ they would perform on me. Not so, as it turns out – but being Chinese, of course, they won’t tell you in advance what they’ve got up their sleeves for you in the future, preferring to spring it on you when you go in for what you think is a routine check-up. And nobody has the time or, apparently, the inclination, to consider the psychological impact of all this, or indeed to acknowledge that there might be an emotional side to pregnancy at all.

So, caught between Chinese vagueness and American hyper-efficiency, I sometimes find myself longing to wait three hours for a doctor who’ll say ‘Well that all looks ok to me, but come back and see me again if anything actually drops off.’ But I suppose that the standard of care I get here will be ultimately much better, the medical staff are more likely to speak fluent English, and at least I won’t die of MRSA. I just wish there was a fast track for this baby business. Nine months is a long time.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Business unusual (part 2)

Peter continues his account of his weekend trip to Lang Ya Shan...

Saturday was conference day. After an impenetrable breakfast of spicy noodles and various strange pickled vegetables, the real business began. First on was young Earnest Vet, who worked for one of the international drug companies. Although all in Chinese, most of his slides told the story quite well, plus I wasn’t much interested anyway, so I didn’t bother to get Kevin to translate for me. We were well provided with Chinese tea – large green tea leaves in a cup that is often topped up by a waitress with hot water from a flask. You kind of have to strain it through your teeth.

Next up was Dr Boffin. He was unbelievably boring. I have seen some awful presentations in my time but this was definitely prizeworthy. His subject matter was quite important to me – several of his slides overlapped what I was going to say – but he had lost the audience within five minutes. An interesting slide would be followed by five or six slides full of mathematical formulae involving logarithms to base e.

Now, in the west, if a speaker is a bit boring we try our best – don’t we – to be polite? We might stare into space and find ourselves thinking about what’s for dinner; what our partner might be doing back home; what was on the telly last night. In China they talk loudly to the people beside them. They turn completely around so their back is to the speaker and conduct group conversations with those behind them. They get out their mobile phones and call friends with a poor signal so that they have to shout. In short; it was like what happens in a primary school class when the teacher nips out for a ciggy. (Does that still happen? It certainly did in my day). Having a microphone didn’t help Dr Boffin at all – he still couldn’t be heard at all over the din. On one occasion he asked the audience whether that point was clear – there was a sudden few seconds of silence that spread like a wave around the room. People even turned around towards the front to see whether anything interesting had finally happened, some clearly put out that their conversation had been interrupted. Then someone near the front answered ‘no, not really’ so he was off again, with ever more detailed explanations whilst the audience returned to their own little worlds.

When he had finally finished, Dr Smooth took the mike. Dr Smooth was an independent technical adviser to Mine Host’s company and was due to speak later in the afternoon, but had obviously decided to try to save the day for Dr Boffin. He had Charisma. Buckets of. And a swept back leonine mane, just greying enough to add an air of refinement. It seems he lives in California, which probably explains a lot. In less than ten minutes he summed up Dr Boffin’s entire hour-and-a-half presentation in a very engaging and memorable manner. He cooed into the microphone. He whispered and they hung on to every word. He raised his voice to make the point and they all nodded emphatically (except the two wifies who chatted incessantly throughout the entire day, obviously). I was impressed.

Next was lunch in the lakeside restaurant, and then I was on. I had been a little concerned about having the post-lunch graveyard slot but, as the only westerner in the village, I was enough of a novelty to keep them engaged. I got a rousing cheer for introducing myself in Chinese and after that they were very good to me. Dr Ssu translated – he is quite a good speaker anyway - so I decided on the tactic of soundbite bullet points, each of which was instantly translated, and it seemed to work. I watched one old guy at the back gradually fall asleep but, apart from the two chatting wifies (who even listened for a few minutes at the beginning before resuming their conversation) they listened quite well.

After me it was Dr Smooth’s allotted slot so he began to smooth them some more. This time he didn’t have it so easy and got quite a bit of heckling. Chatting wifies chatted throughout and I think it was when he stopped talking and stared at them with a smoothie smile that things began to go wrong for him. This was taking liberties. It’s as though they can only take so much smooth at one go. Either that or they were just exhausted at being so quiet for my presentation. Whatever the reason, they were simply not going to believe some of the things he told them, and that was that.

Then came question time. All the speakers sat in front of microphones at the top table and the audience was invited to supply written questions. Some small gift was given to those whose questions were answered as a wee incentive.

We were flooded. The questions were quite good too, and demonstrated that at least some people had been listening throughout. They just kept on coming and coming. After an hour and a quarter and with more of the audience still waving the girls over to collect questions, Mine Host Jason had to call a halt whilst we answered the final eight. It was after 5.30 by now, we had been at it all day and wanted a rest before the onslaught that is dinner.

The audience really perked up then because it was prize time. Each speaker had been asked to give two questions to MH, the answers to which would appear in the presentation. These questions must have been distributed at some stage because the slips were all collected at the end and put into a raffle box. Most of the prizes were fairly small things donated by the companies involved. We supplied pens, mugs and backpacks all bearing our logo. Someone else supplied fleece jackets. The two top prizes were quite presentable though; a nice camera and a laptop. The whole affair was a bit drawn out with many looks of palpable disappointment as the crappy presents were distributed first, raising the excitement level for the final two. As the top table speakers took it in turns to pull the question slips out of the box I noticed that no attempt had been made to mark the papers. My questions were mostly answered correctly – I had made them pretty easy – but I didn’t see one single attempt to answer Dr Boffin’s questions. Some hadn’t answered any questions at all.

I finally got about seven minutes’ break before dinner. Mine Host was delighted with the day and sat me at his right hand, dismissing Kevin to a different table to make more room for the important guests. MH assured me that he would interpret, and his English being quite good, I concurred.

This was not a good idea as it turned out. He spent about 15 minutes at my table then set off on a tour of all the other tables delivering amiable good charm and lashings of baijo. When he returned to our table an hour later he was definitely not in a good way. His shirt was completely untucked and he began to mop his brow and complain of the heat.

Everyone then adjourned en masse to the KTV (karaoke) bar. The Chinese simply adore karaoke and will deny any suggestion that it’s a Japanese invention (but then they claim to have invented everything, including football). Indeed in Harbin we are often reduced to sleeping with ear-plugs in to block out the, ahem, dulcet strains of over-amplified ‘singing’ coming from the KTV bar next to our flat there – which sometimes goes on until 5am.

Anyway the farmers were well up for it that night. Going to join in the fun, I discovered however that the only drink on offer in the so-called ‘bar’ was tea. With what I thought was extreme presence of mind, I quickly slipped back into the dining hall and grabbed a mostly full bottle of something from the nearest table before it was cleared away. Sadly it turned out to be the revolting ‘dark baijo’, which I proceeded to struggle through. As my grandad would have said, I was glad when I’d finished it. I also – confession-time now – lost my karaoke virginity. With ‘Yesterday’. It was good for me. I was also the only singer to get a round of applause, probably because unlike all the others I was obviously able to sing the original words.

After that, I must confess the evening becomes a little hazy. MH was last seen slumped in a corner somewhere. Kevin had made an early exit and was nowhere to be seen. I finally retired to bed, silently thanking my parents for endowing me with a sturdy Irish constitution and wondering what state the Chinese would be in for the following morning’s sightseeing trip.

At this point my correspondent, pleading lack of time, concludes his account, so I'll just fill you in quickly with what I know of the following day's activities. The entire party - apparently looking remarkably healthy despite the previous evening's festivities - were taken to visit an old villa and a living monastery with integral Buddhist temple in the hills beneath which the hotel was built. Dr Ssu and Kevin both came over a bit religious. Peter did his best to enjoy the sightseeing - a process hampered by the fact that they were accompanied by approximately 9000 Chinese tourists aged 4 to 104, including about 70 school parties being escorted around the sites by students talking loudly into megaphones.

It quickly became apparent that Peter was probably the first westerner most of them had ever seen, as around forty 11-year-old schoolgirls queued up to have their picture taken with him. One actually trembled with excitement - or it could have been terror - when he put his arm around her for the photo. Nearly all wore t-shirts bearing text in 'English'. As usual though they didn’t believe in spell-checkers or proof reading so a good percentage had typos. A selection included 'Aple blossm', 'Memory make happy always' … and Peter's favourite: 'Harvard Univirsity'.

Then it was back on the bus for the long journey home - only 6 hours this time if you don't count the two hours required for Jason to get someone to come and unlock his office where he had left his car keys, so that he could drive Peter home.

Finally just a few more photos just to give you the general idea.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Business unusual (part 1)

As the last week has seen me do little of interest except poring over Mothercare catalogues, I thought for a change I would invite a guest correspondent (Peter) to regale you with his tale of a conference he attended a couple of weekends ago. Here in Shanghai it's easy to kid oneself that China is quite westernised really. The following account shows just how wrong such an assumption is. Enjoy.

We have recently taken on an agent who will sell our products to farmers in the Shanghai and Nanjing areas. The company was founded and is run by Jason. Jason is a rotund, jolly Chinese man who possesses considerably more acumen than is evident at first sight, like one or two publicans I have come across in the past. I was supposed to have addressed two seminars – one in each city – that he organised several weeks ago but these were postponed at the last minute due to an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the area. The ministry got on with the job of wholesale slaughter without feeling the need to let the general public know about it or anything. Anyway they appear to have contained the disease because Jason got the go ahead last week to arrange farmer meetings again.

This time, rather than hold separate meetings, he decided on a different tack. He got us and two other companies whose products he sells to split the cost with him of a conference in the mountain resort of Lang Ya Shan, ‘a four hour drive’ away in neighbouring Anhui province. We were all to travel there by coach (via a factory belonging to one of the participating companies) on Friday, have a full day’s conference on Saturday with presentations by all the suppliers; then half a day sightseeing on Sunday morning before returning home. The opportunities for enormous banquets with much drink, good humour and guanxi would then clearly be maximised. Basically it would more or less be me versus 80 Chinese farmers. I could hardly wait.

Jason (Mine Host) picked us up in the driving rain early on Friday morning – me, our sales director Dr Ssu, and Kevin, who still couldn’t believe his luck that I had let him come along. The poor lad never gets to leave the Harbin office very often and, because he works for Boss and me who already speak English, he missed out entirely on a recent UK trip that all the other company interpreters enjoyed.

Mine Host took us to his office, an hour’s wet drive away on the northern suburbs of Shanghai, outside which an empty coach stood waiting. We were first ushered upstairs into a smoke-filled boardroom where, dimly through the fug, I got my first idea of what 80 Chinese farmers looked (and sounded!) like. Over breakfast of fruit, bread rolls (the sugary Chinese ones) and bottled water, MH did a formal welcome presentation giving the history and success record of his (several) companies before we were allowed to board the bus.

As we groaned through the pouring rain it became apparent that the coach had seen better days. Like in an aircraft, each seat had four switches above it for light, air control etc. none of which worked. No seatbelts. Obviously. Looking about, several seats had been crudely welded together. I’d prefer not to think about how they got damaged in the first place. I’m also not sure if the driver knew when to change gear, as it juddered up every hill and he almost stalled it a couple of times before we got to the motorway.

At least no-one was smoking though, which was a huge relief. Possibly worse than smoke though was the muzak blaring from a speaker just above my head. It alternated between trashy rock numbers with razor guitar riffs to big-voiced slow ballads. Having a headache to start with I eventually had to send Kevin to ask the driver to turn it down, which he did for approximately eleven minutes before it was back to full volume again.

We had a wee and fag stop about 11.30 at the M-way services. Kevin said the farmers couldn’t believe it when they were ushered back onto the coach – they wanted to know where lunch was; 11.30 being the usual lunchtime in China. Even the ‘box of strangeness’ that we have for lunch every day in the Harbin office usually arrives before 11.15. Luckily I had brought sandwiches just in case so I was alright, Jack. It was at this point that I noticed Mine Host wasn’t with us - up at the front of the bus as I had thought. It seems he had an important meeting and would join us by car later.

Soon afterwards we went through an M-way toll gate and were immediately pulled over to a waiting area by the side of the road for a routine police check. Twenty minutes later the driver was still talking heatedly to the policeman, surrounded by smoking farmers, so I sent Kevin to find out what was going on. It seems the driver had a fake driving licence.

Needing to stretch my legs now I wandered around the checkpoint area. All across the hoarding the length of the area were 20 or so giant posters showing horrific traffic accidents, most with close ups of mangled people or bits of people. On one of them the picture was blurred, but the inset photo of Princess Di sporting a dreadful 80s perm gave away the reason for its inclusion. I didn’t realise she was recognised here but I suppose the world’s best known road accident victim is an icon the world over.

An hour later and I was extremely glad of my sandwiches and reading book. They let us go eventually. The story now was that it wasn’t a fake driving licence but a wrong, or possibly out of date, licence for the coach itself. Apparently the bus company would get a few days to put the matter right. By now it was around 2.00 and we pulled off the M-way into a village where there was a nice little restaurant for a quick lunch. I was a bit hungry again by now so the farmers must have been suffering. There were even traditional costumes and folk musicians to meet us.

After that it was still an hour and a half to the factory. In true Chinese style, the entire bus save for me and the driver slept soundly all the way there. I could probably have done so if it hadn’t been for the omnipresent muzak, by now at lower volume but at that irritating boom-chack boom-chack level that reminded me of toothache.

Now, our company has five factories in China and this one was one of our major worldwide competitors so I felt a bit strange, not to mention exposed, when we all donned white coats and silly mop-caps for the tour. Dr Ssu’s cunning plan to give his camera to Kevin (who was dressed and looked generally more like the farmers), and pretend to be my interpreter himself whilst Kevin indulged in some amateur industrial espionage, backfired when they said we couldn’t take cameras inside the plant.

We FINALLY reached the resort destination at just after 7.00 (the ‘four hour drive’ thus having taking approximately eleven hours from when I was picked up at home) and dinner was meant to have been at 6.00 so it was dump the stuff and dash.

The place was a lot bigger than I expected – an entire resort hotel sort of thing set in a steep wooded gorge (my window was just feet from a sheer rock-face) with lots of open covered walkways passing by carp ponds linking different buildings. Whilst clearly being a holiday resort, there were no concessions for westerners; none of the staff spoke English, though most of the signs were bilingual – well Chinglish, anyway; we ate for example in the Anquet Hall. The hotel brochure was a spectacularly bad approximation of my native language. It’s as though they had given it to the manager’s primary school age child to translate, without bothering to get it checked by a real English speaker. I got the feeling that I was the first non-Chinese person ever to visit there.

Most impressive of all was the list of products on sale in the guest rooms. You’ll get the idea if you refer to an earlier post describing my experiences at a hotel in Yi’an, but this one, being a flashier place entirely, had more variety on offer. For some reason, Chinese hotels seem to imagine that their guests will have neglected to pack any underwear and so often have men’s briefs on sale in the rooms. This one offered a range, however, including ‘Women knickets’ and ‘Fatmen’s underwear’. Where the ordinary men’s briefs packet was illustrated with the standard posing western male model type, the Fatmen’s alternative showed a portly Indian gent.

You could also purchase, among other things, various teas, vermicelli, playing cards, ‘compressed towel’, and, for the ladies, ‘Women lotion – an adult-only pudenda washing lotion’. This delightful product, it seemed, could ‘clean the adult pudenda quickly and effectively, forming a protective barrier at the using part to protect human body from filth.’ It could also ‘relieve pruritus and get rid of peculiar smell’. Now you can’t say these Chinese hotel proprietors don’t think of everything. The whole (extensive) list of products ended with the promise – or warning, it was hard to tell which – ‘In the event of shortages of goods or adjustement period, whitout prior notice, locations!’

Dinner was the by now familiar banquet, with courses arriving all the time, much individual and collective toasting with baijo (52% alcohol Chinese hooch), m???jo (a wine-strength disgusting liquid) and beer flowing freely. By some accident or design the Chinese expression ‘gan bei’ means both ‘cheers’ and ‘bottoms up’ so mealtimes can be quite a challenge for some. As has been noted before, the Chinese don’t drink very much, if at all, but at least half the farmers had at least some beer. One large farmer across the table took a shine to me when he saw me ‘gan bei’ with the real stuff so he kept up a steady flow of banter, then later presented me his business card in a formal, if somewhat unsteady, manner. It seems I'd made a friend.

To be continued.....

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Conversations you never thought you'd have

Part 1:

Kevin: What is mean of 'bugger'? Boss say this all the time.

[Peter, after recovering from several minutes of laughter, painstakingly explains the original meaning, and then the less explicit way in which the word is used nowadays to express mild irritation.]

Kevin: Ah. But I find it very difficult to distinguish between 'a bugger' and 'a burger'.

[Peter speechless with laughter.]

Kevin: I also find it very difficult to distinguish between 'can't' and 'can't'.

Peter: What?

Kevin: 'Can't' and 'can't'.

Peter: But they're the same.

Kevin: No. Is very different. 'Can't' is 'cannot do', and 'can't' is rudest word in English language.

[Peter speechless with laughter.]

Kevin: But I don't understand. Why can I not say these words, even to you? What can be so bad about a word? Is it about powerful magic? Like spell-type words?

Makes you think, doesn't it?

Part 2:

[Wildon has just been explaining how people from the north of China are regarded as blunt, straight-talking and down-to-earth, whereas people from the south are seen as a bit more devious, and those from the southern cities look down on those from the north.]

Peter: That's exactly the same division between north and south that we have in England! Or in Scotland, between east and west.

Wildon: Ah. Chinese people like very much the north of England dancing.

Peter: What dancing?

Wildon: Dancing with wooden shoes.

Peter: Wooden shoes?

Wildon: Yes, shoes with wooden underneath. What is name?

Peter: Clogs?

Wildon: Yes! Clogs! Dancing with clogs!

Peter: You don't mean Morris dancing? Where they wave handkerchiefs?

[Wildon looks puzzled.]

Peter: Or where they hit each other with sticks?

Wildon: No. Wooden clogs. Is very popular in China. [Pause.] We also like very much the famous western singer, the King of Cats.

Peter: Who?

Kevin: The King of Cats. You must know him. He is very famous.

Wildon: He has hair like this [gestures to indicate a very large hairstyle].

Peter: The Stray Cats?

Wildon: Yes!

Peter: Are you sure? There were three of them, and they're not that famous.

Kevin: No, is one man singer.

Wildon: He is dead now.

Peter: Elvis?

[W & K both look dubious.]

Peter: I think you must mean Elvis. Haven't you ever heard the name Elvis?

[Both shake heads].

Kevin: He is called Number One of the Cats. But I will look it up on the internet and tell you tomorrow.

[Next day, Kevin walks into office.]

Kevin: I looked up the King of Cats' English name, and you were right! He is called Elvis!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Watery woes - postscript

The bad news: the window cleaners not only managed to soak our utility room with water pouring through from upstairs. They also knocked our satellite dish out of alignment, so I had to get the TV repair people back AS WELL. Water: you'd never believe the amount of trouble it can cause.

The good news: Peter told Big Boss about our taxi-in-the-rain experience, and he and several others were so horrified that a series of urgent meetings was held, with the result that we now have top priority access to company cars and drivers whenever we want them! I'm now feeling slightly guilty, and obliged to call out drivers for the slightest thing ('Er, I need to go to the shop for a pint of milk, can you send a car please?') to justify making such a fuss. They are also under strict instructions NEVER to send the Sciatica-Mobile van for me again. This was after an unfortunate incident when they sent it for us to do some baby-shopping in last week - thinking they were being helpful - and I flat refused to get in it.

AND, from some time in June to be confirmed, they're going to pay to keep the drivers on 24-hour standby on a rota for me going into labour! Which has got to beat standing by the side of the road in a downpour, probably in the middle of the night, with taxi drivers taking one look at me clutching my belly and thinking 'Blimey, I don't want her in the back of my taxi', for which I would hardly blame them.

And if I can contrive to break my washing machine again, I'll get a new one.

Now if THIS is what a bit of water trouble can do, I say bring it on!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Watery woes

You know how they say that as you get older, you just turn into your parents? Well I think it’s finally happened, and not quite in the way I expected.

My father had a deep loathing of problems with water. Of a household or environmental nature. He hated rain, refused to visit certain places on the grounds that they were ‘too bloody wet’, and at home any burst pipe or leaking window was always the source of immense trauma. Unfortunately, like a cat instinctively making a feline beeline for someone who’s allergic, it was as if water knew how much he hated it, and concocted ever crueller and more inventive ways of tormenting him. Like the time he and my mother looked after an elderly neighbour’s house one Christmas and ended up having to defrost a foot-thick block of ice off her water tank. Or when they drove me to university for the first time, staying away for the weekend, and came back to find our hall under three or four inches of water and the house with several thousand pounds’ worth of damage thanks to a toilet cistern which had cracked just before we left the house, and had been continually refilling for two days. The malice of water.

Well it’s a good job he never went to Shanghai. In Harbin our domestic difficulties mainly seemed to involve electrics. We had bulbs blowing and tripping not just one fuse but the entire flat; dodgy starters (or ‘cube things’ to give them their technical name as employed by Kevin!) on lights, and a meter which you had to pay for in advance. But ever since we got here it’s been one disaster after another, and every one of them has involved water in some capacity or other. I know I alluded to these before, but I feel compelled now to share the soggy and unpleasant details with you.

First of all there was the washing machine, which you’ll recall was broken when we moved in. It’s a knackered, old-fashioned washer-dryer contraption – one of those with a dial which turns through all the programmes – 1996 model, I was informed, and it belongs in the scrapyard. No washing machine is designed to last that long. I think 13 years in washing machine time is like dog years and it’s about 276 by our reckoning. The writing on the front has mostly worn off so that you can’t read which programme is which – although as it’s all in Chinese this is less of a problem for me than it could be. It rocks and shudders with alarming vigour when spinning and makes a noise like a small puppy being tortured and then run over by a juggernaut. In Harbin I had a lovely new one – purchased by us on the day we moved in – so it was always going to be a difficult adjustment, but I comforted myself with the thought that at least it isn’t a horrid toploader, which are still pretty much standard in China, and it’s indoors, unlike those in a couple of the apartments I looked round which had their washing machines on a balcony outside.

Anyway when we came to use it we found that the motor which turns the dial had given out, meaning the thing would wash, rinse or spin indefinitely unless you cranked the dial manually round to the next number. Grrr. How the previous tenants failed to notice this is beyond me. Either they must have thought this was how it was supposed to work, or else they never did any washing; probably the latter, if their other standards of domestic cleanliness are anything to go by – and I refer my readers to my last-but-one post to appreciate the level of squalour which would provoke ME to make such a statement.

So we got it fixed. Or rather the landlord’s pal, Mr Sun, got it fixed for us. New motor. All well and good.

Then one night last week, when Peter was in Harbin, I was (ironically) hanging out some washing when I heard a sound like water gushing. Knowing I hadn’t left any taps running, I ignored it, telling myself it must be ‘coming from upstairs’ even though I could tell fine well it was in our flat somewhere. Denial’s great, isn’t it? Sadly after half an hour, on my third check of the kitchen sink from which the sound seemed to be emanating, I was forced rudely out of denial by the large puddle in which I found myself standing. Opening the cupboard under the sink, I found a geyser coming from somewhere up at the top of the cold water pipe. Fortunately taps in China all seem to be fitted with their own individual stopcock so I didn’t have to go searching the place for a mains tap, or do without water until the following day or anything. But I did have to do an excessive amount of mopping, putting down of old newspapers, and making phone calls to Sherry, our new interpreter, to get Mr Sun to send out a plumber. Grrr again.

Anyway it turns out Mr Sun is a bit of a dab hand at the old plumbing himself. He came round and mended it personally the next day, producing from nowhere a length of new pipe, and a giant sealant gun with which he fixed the sink more securely in place, and he even cleaned gritty stuff out of the tap for me. All this was conducted with – on his part - facial expressions and gestures of contempt (for the cowboys who put it in, I hope, rather than for me), and on mine the exclamations of shock, gratitude and general female helplessness which, I’m pleased to be able to report, seem to work with tradesmen the world over.

All was quiet for a couple of days, until it was time for Washing Machine Revisited. I’d used it maybe five or six times since its repair, but clearly it was too much. Grrrrrr once more. This time the motor was turning, but the fan belt must have either slipped or snapped off, as I discovered it had completed the best part of a towels wash without the drum turning at all. Result: several sopping wet and not fully rinsed towels, which I had to hang up in the shower (where they acquired rust marks) to drip dry, and then put on the washing line on the balcony (where they acquired black marks from the pollution) to get wet again in the rain.

Ah, the rain. After 15 years in Scotland I should really be used to it, but it’s amazing how six months in Harbin’s dry inland climate can lull you into a place where the notion of water suddenly falling out of the sky is a surprise. I think I only saw actual rain twice in the whole time we were there, and snow no more than half a dozen times. Shanghai, on the other hand, is not only on the coast (like Edinburgh), but is in a sub-tropical zone. Which means that when it rains, it RAINS. Especially in spring.

It’s obviously such a big part of life here that they have a well-developed umbrella culture, with umbrella stands in offices and restaurants, and staff handing you specially-shaped plastic bags to put over your brolly when you enter shops. Why do they not do this in Scotland? Why? The Shanghaiers, particularly those riding bikes or scooters, all wear sensible waterproof ponchos which cover them and their vehicle almost entirely. (They also work for baby bumps!) Again, why don’t we do this back home? The denizens of Edinburgh seem to prefer to walk along with water dripping off their noses and all their clothes soaked through rather than risk looking uncool in a funny mac. But then I suppose looking uncool isn’t much of a consideration for Chinese people; let’s face it, with the poodle perms and bad shorts most of them are starting from what my doctor would call ‘a rather low base’ as it is.

Unfortunately, when we went out to the supermarket last Sunday, I had yet to acquire my bump-covering poncho, and had only a rather old and not-terribly-waterproof-any-more coat and a pair of even older, suede Converse trainers to put on. Peter had his Harbin outdoor coat with the ceramic beads, but ceramic beads ain’t much use against the kind of downpour we encountered. At least not when it takes 15 minutes to get a taxi to the shops, and about 40 minutes – in the dark and in absolute driving rain, soaked to the skin and carrying heavy food shopping, all of which got drenched and had to be dried out on the dining table – to get one home again.

The trouble was that people kept stealing our spot by dodging ahead of us and hopping into taxis which by rights should have been ours, due to our inability to hop anywhere on account of my bump and the shopping. Two men in unmarked cars did pull up and offer us lifts (in English) but we declined in case they were bilingual axe murderers or – more likely – just saw an opportunity to take us for a huge amount of money. By the time we got home we’d have won first prize at an international rat-drowning festival, and all the contents of my handbag –which was done up – were soggy, including my passport. Grrrrrrrrrr. And yuck, as well.

So today Mr Sun (whose name and general all-round helpfulness keep making me sing the Ace of Base song Dr Sun - ‘Give me Doctor Sun, he’s my man’) was due to come round to sort out some bills with us. We’d reported the broken washing machine and he’d arranged for someone to come and repair it at the same time, when Sherry would also be here to explain the problem if required. (He also said that if it broke again they’d just get us a new one, which was a bit of a result as that’s what I wanted in the first place anyway).

They were all supposed to be here between 5 and 6pm. Which is why when the doorbell rang at lunchtime I ignored it. Now I know at least one reader who will sympathise when I admit that I was in my jammies. If anyone else is shocked, then my excuse is that I’m pregnant and don’t sleep well at night (partly because the bed in Harbin was the size of a football pitch so we’re having some trouble getting used to a normal sized one again!), so I often tend to sleep in in the morning. Anyway, if it was the washing machine people, they were too early, and if it wasn’t, then it would be someone speaking Chinese at me about something unknown. So I thought they could just come back later. Which they did. Ten minutes later. And another ten minutes after that. And again after that, each time ringing the doorbell more insistently than the time before.

On the third attempt, they started to hammer on the door as well. By now it had reached the point where I couldn’t have opened the door even if I’d wanted to, as it would have been obvious that I’d been there all along. But when they actually started to rattle the door handle to see if the door was locked I decided I’d rather not open it, as whoever was outside was clearly a psychopath. This went on for a full fifteen minutes before Peter (whom I’d phoned in a state of some alarm!) came home and let the man – who had indeed come to fix the washing machine, four hours early – in.

And then, just to round it all off, while he was here, we noticed that window cleaners were shinning down the outside of the building on ropes, and had just about reached our floor when Peter saw water pouring in through the ceiling just inside one of the windows (fortunately the one in the utility room where there’s a drain in the floor and we keep a mop & bucket anyway). When Mr Sun finally came, we mentioned this with some concern. ‘Oh that’s ok’, came the reply. ‘That won’t happen again. They only wash the windows every two years.’

Dad, if they’ve got the internet up there and you’re reading this, if I ever laughed at you then I’m sorry. I understand now. I never thought I could hate the wet stuff so much.

Now, can I hear something dripping?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Tokyo Girl

First of all, apologies. We’ve been home from Japan a week, but in between doctor’s appointments, a flood under our sink, and doing all our holiday laundry before the washing machine broke down again (which it did, last night) I don’t seem to have got around to blogging. I did manage to upload our holiday photos though, which hopefully many of you have seen by now – if not, I’ve put a link at the end of this post.

Anyway, we’re back. Peter is slowly getting used to Two-Home Syndrome – otherwise known as ‘Oh no, all my trousers appear to be in the wrong city’ – and I’m mostly sitting around knitting while waiting for men to come and fix things, and occasionally going out and getting incredibly frustrated with taxi drivers who have no idea where to go. I’m now refusing to leave the house until we can get a piece of paper which actually tells them where to get off the elevated road so that they don’t take me a mile past the house every time.

So, as it’s all quiet on the Shanghai front, here are ten facts you didn’t know about Japan.

1. They drive on the left. This was a surprise. I thought it was only the former British colonies who retained this (to the rest of the world) oddity. I can only assume they chose the left at random – as we must have done – at the time when such things came to be decided and formalised. When was that anyway? We just take it for granted, but it occurred to me that I have no idea how it came about. Who decided, and how? I imagine that it happened relatively late in the history of motoring, so if there’s anyone out there who can enlighten me, I’d be fascinated to know. Yes, I know, I’m a bit of a saddo.

2. The Japanese really are unbelievably polite. And they really do bow. A lot. In fact hotel staff don’t so much bow as scrape. Taxi drivers bow. Shop staff bow as you enter and again as you leave, all the while thanking you profusely even if all you’ve done is walk around, realise everything is ridiculously expensive, and walk out again (which was mostly what we did). Drivers bow to you from behind the wheel if you let them go. But more often than not they stop to let you cross. Together with the driving on the left it takes all the fun out of crossing the road.

3. And don’t even get me started on the queueing. Nobody pushes or shoves. They queue for the toilet. On subway platforms they queue in orderly lines at marked points to enter specific carriages. We got ordered to the back of a bus queue for pushing in – Chinese-style - with our luggage when we first arrived at the airport. I never thought I’d find a nation more anal about queues than the Brits, but there we are. It exists.

4. Everyone wears a suit and tie to work. Dark suits with almost exclusively plain white shirts for the guys, and often for the girls too, complete with clumpy black or navy court shoes of the kind favoured by the late Queen Mother. One or two of the younger guys had made a daring foray into subtly striped shirts, but I bet they were the trouble-makers who got passed over for promotion. Even taxi drivers (unless they’re in a chauffeur’s uniform) wear suits. Kids wear western-style school uniform, often with kilts. By contrast, the studenty, arty types could be seen sporting the most bizarre of attire, ranging as far as a pink crinoline with pink bobby-socks and a straw hat (I kid you not). And every girl under 30 – and most of the boys too – had dyed hair cut into a hyper-trendy style. Hairdressers abounded, seemingly on every corner, to cater for this necessity.

Contrast this, if you will, with Chinese fashion style, which goes something like this. Business attire for men: a black jumper with a zip at the neck, probably with jeans or maybe tracksuit bottoms. For the more senior/modern businessman, possibly a suit, but never a tie. For women of all ages: anything goes. Denim or leather shorts are popular, often with thigh-high boots. School uniforms are generally turquoise shellsuits. Hair is stuck in an 80s timewarp, with the bouffant and the poodle perm being the hairstyles de choix for males and females respectively. What a difference a few hundred miles and half a century of open government makes.

I must say a final word about the dogs. Like the Chinese, they like 'em small, but where the Chinese dog of choice is the chihuahua - the tinier the better - for the Japanese it’s the long-haired dachsund. Preferably dressed up in a silly outfit. Who knows why.

5. Nobody says ‘Konnichiwa’ or ‘Sayonara’, any more than people in Britain say ‘Good afternoon; how do you do?’, to the confusion of EFL students the world over. I didn’t catch what they were saying in greeting, but for Goodbye they generally either just thank you (if they’re in the service industry and you’re a customer), or amongst themselves they often say ‘Bye-bye’ in English. The Chinese do this too. I can only guess it’s acquired some kind of sophisticated cachet, like the British saying ‘Ciao’ to each other. I should like to point out, by the way, that I have never said ‘Ciao’. But I did get to use one of the two phrases I know in Japanese – ‘Arigato gozaimasu’, which means ‘Thank you very much’, a great deal. Strangely, I didn’t get to use the other. It’s ‘Niwa de e o kaite iru hito wa ripa na ekaki desu’, which means ‘The man painting a picture in the garden is a splendid artist’. Don’t ask.

6. Japan is a great place to be pregnant. All the subway trains had seats specially designated for those with bad legs or bumps, and everyone is so well trained in excessive politeness that even teenagers leapt back to allow me to sit down the minute they saw me. In China, nobody gives a sh**. It did get us into the ‘Special Lane’ at immigration at Shanghai airport – thus bypassing a queue of several hundred other foreigners last Sunday – but only after I asked and they’d just let someone less pregnant than me go through, and so could hardly refuse.

7. It’s also a great place to have diarrhoea. Yes, once again my constitution – ox-like in the face of Chinese supermarkets of dubious cleanliness and occasionally unidentifiable items served in Chinese restaurants – failed me on arrival in a supposedly ‘westernised’ country where you can actually drink the tap water, and I got a case of Delhi Belly. Or let’s call it Tokyo Tum. Anyway, if I had to pick a country to have the trots, I’d pick Japan on account of the toilets, nearly all of which have a built-in bidet with adjustable spray. Some even have a ‘back or front wash’ option. They also have heated seats, doors that lock, and somewhere to put your handbag – and even, in many cases, your baby, in a special ‘baby rest’ on the wall.

The one unfortunate exception was the public toilet in a park which was the scene of one of my more dramatic diarrhoea episodes. I’ll spare you the details, but suffice to say this was NOT one of the modern, all-dancing, all-spraying Japanese toilets, but was a Chinese-style one.

Now this is where I have to confess, dear readers, that I’ve been protecting you a bit up until now from the unpalatable reality that is Chinese public toilets. But I think you’re ready. Not that I wish to deter any of our potential visitors, but the Chinese have squat toilets. That’s holes in the ground, with a sort of horizontal urinal built into the tiles. For women. You find these everywhere except in private homes, 5-star hotels aimed at westerners, and some – but by no means all – restaurants. Even offices, mega-posh shopping malls, and the western fast-food chains can’t be relied upon to provide proper toilets. You’re generally ok in Starbucks and Pizza Hut, but not Macdonald’s or KFC (er, not that we frequent these places much, honest!).

I’ve yet to fathom out exactly how one’s supposed to use them without getting wee all over your clothes and shoes – and that’s even without a baby bump. Also there’s nowhere to put your bag except in a puddle, the doors don’t lock (or are deliberately left unlocked by people using the toilet so that it’s easy to walk in on a lady in a compromising position), and there’s generally no paper, at least not in the individual cubicles. If you do use paper, you’re not supposed to flush it down the toilet but to put it into a bin instead, along with everyone else’s. As you can imagine, it gets a bit stinky. They tell you the reason is because of poor plumbing, but really it’s because they spread human excrement on the fields as fertiliser and don’t want paper mixed in with it. Which probably also explains why they discourage the use of tampons.

Ok, I’ll stop now. Forget I spoke. Go to Japan and get your bum washed instead.

8. Kyoto has a large expat community. We discovered this when we went to an Irish bar and on the first night were one of three English couples there (the only customers apart from an Irish chap), and on the second night accidentally found ourselves at a wake attended by a large number of middle-aged, bohemian Americans who had all clearly lived there for years. Kyoto is also overrun with tourists of all nationalities, at least during sakura (cherry blossom) season. What’s more, it’s very hilly and April is surprisingly hot. If you’re going, I’d recommend an out of season visit. And not being 6 months pregnant if you actually want to see anything, as all the pretty temples etc are up large flights of steps at the top of steep hills. I lost count of the number of times I sat on a wall to recover while Peter went off and took photos of the thing we were meant to be looking at, so that I could see it later.

9. Despite the above, outside of the tourist industry it’s rarer to find English speakers in Japan than it is in China, where they’ve obviously been teaching English in primary schools for 20 years so that many young people can speak at least some, even if most won’t admit it out of shyness. In Japan, it’s more common to find English speakers among the older generation, but even those are few and far between. Most restaurants – including those purporting to serve western food – have monolingual Japanese menus. Chinese menus (in Shanghai and Harbin anyway) often have English and nearly always have pictures. So eating out in Japan can be a challenge. Restaurant staff, however, seemed mystified as to why we kept walking away.

10. In spite of the down sides, Japan is quite simply fab – and not just when compared to China. It’s super-clean, super-fast and yet remarkably laid back. We found a brilliant quarter of Tokyo awash with vintage clothes shops, which was seventh heaven for me as they don’t have such things in China – well, I suppose there’s not much of a market for vintage Mao suits – yet! The bullet train is great, as is the view of Mount Fuji which you get when travelling on it from Tokyo to Kyoto. And the cherry blossom is truly spectacular. Take a look.

Arigato gozaimasu. Sayonara and Bye-bye for now!

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Sweeping changes

Well. Tomorrow, Sunday 5th April, is my birthday. I shall be (apparently, so they tell me) 41.

Forty-one. Was a more depressing age ever invented? Like so many of its odd-number fellows, it sits uncomfortably between two even numbers each rich in cultural references. The only cultural reference point I can think of for 41 is that it was the age of the unfortunate character of Timothy, played by Ronnie Corbett, in the 80s sitcom Sorry!, which isn’t too great a role model. It was bad enough last year, when I stared and stared at all the cards on the mantlepiece with a large number on the front, wondering who on earth they could belong to as they quite clearly had nothing to do with me. But now I’m not just 40. I’m IN MY FORTIES. Last year I had to come to terms with the notion that I would be ticking a new box, the 40-49 one, on most forms from then on. Then last night I had the horrible realisation that there might even be forms with a 41-50 box which, as of tomorrow, will include me. I’m probably not even allowed another birthday party for the next nine years, and when I do have one, all my friends will be old. As well.

Here in China, this weekend also marks the annual Qingming (pronounced Ching-ming) or Tomb Sweeping festival. This is one of those ‘does-exactly-what-it-says-on-the-tin’ type of festivals when people, er, sweep tombs and generally tidy up and tend their family graves. They also make offerings at the graves in honour of their ancestors. It’s very similar in sentiment to the better-known Mexican Dia de los Muertos (though sadly without the fabby costumes, Watty & Mark!) As one of China’s few solar festivals it always falls on the 15th day after the Spring Equinox, i.e. the 4th or 5th April. Great. Just what I need when I’m feeling a bit sensitive about being middle-aged – a festival of death on my birthday.

Tomb Sweeping Festival was only designated a public holiday for the first time in 2008, when the traditional May Day ‘Golden Week’ was shortened to three days, and you get the impression that people don’t know quite what to do with it yet, especially as it falls on a weekend this year anyway. If the Scottish government ever gets around to making St Andrew’s Day a holiday like they keep threatening, the Scots will know exactly what to do – go to the pub and generally celebrate an extra day’s skiving off work – but the Chinese, as a largely workaholic nation, seem ill-at-ease with the concept of leisure time and appear to find it difficult to relax. They’re forever working at weekends to make up time and, with the exception of Chinese New Year, seem a bit confused by the idea of days off. This is no doubt why China is one of the few countries whose economy is not currently in recession, what financial problems they do have all being of external making.

Anyway, the only evidence of anything unusual going on this weekend has been the fires on street corners where people burn papers bearing blessings and gifts for their ancestors, such as we saw at New Year, only on a slightly wider scale – in Harbin anyway. For the past couple of evenings they were to be seen in every gutter, and the aftermath – in the form of piles of charcoal – was much in evidence this morning. Our ‘corner shop’ downstairs was selling bundles of brown paper specifically for the purpose. As we drove through town on our way to the airport today, there was a bit of a holiday mood - though that may have been due to the unseasonably warm spring sunshine which has made all the ice and snow disappear in the space of a couple of days – and on a road out of town which presumably led to a cemetery there was a mile-long tailback.

Then we arrived into Shanghai tonight in a downpour worthy of a Scottish summer, which would have extinguished the brightest of sacrificial flames and was distinctly non-tomb-sweeping weather. Part of the tradition involves picnicking, chatting and possibly flying kites by your family’s grave once you’ve done your sweeping, but it really wasn’t the day for that so I guess they all went home and ate the food they’d put out for the ancestors there. Apparently they only put the rubbish food like dry biscuits out on the actual graves in case ‘bad spirits’ (or very much alive scroungers, more like) help themselves to it, and save all the good stuff for indoors.

In many ways it’s a fitting conclusion to this week, which for me anyway has had a bit of an ‘end of days’ feel to it. This was my final week in our Harbin flat until the autumn, and I’ve been feeling quite emotional about it. Everything seems to be changing. Even B&Q is closing, a victim of the credit crunch, apparently. Said establishment, we found with some hilarity on our arrival in Harbin, was right on our doorstep, between our flat and Peter’s office. You’ll appreciate the comedy in this when you realise that Peter, who hates DIY with a passion (despite being, unfortunately for him, rather good at it), nearly tore his hair out having to visit our nearest branch in Edinburgh almost weekly in the run-up to our departure last year in an effort to finish our blighted bathroom refurbishments. Anyway, B&Q Harbin will remain open only as long as stocks last – which won’t be long if the swarms of locust-like bargain hunters fighting over humidifiers and buckets reduced by 20% last night were anything to go by.

I hasten to point out that I’m not particularly emotional about the closure of B&Q. I may be hormonal but it hasn’t got that bad – yet! I have however been stressed by several things. The first was trying to book a cheapish hotel in Kyoto at the height of their sakura (cherry blossom) season. After fruitless attempts via several useless websites with non-real-time booking systems, we had to grovel to Peter’s Japanese colleague to find us somewhere, after initially turning down his offer of help because he didn’t seem to believe us when we said we didn’t want to pay £275 a night.

The second was having to leave Harbin just as spring is starting in earnest after five months of grim winter. I’m gutted about this. Unlike all other migratory creatures, we are flying south for the summer. Not sure what species of swallow that makes us – not African or European, that’s for sure – maybe just perverse? Though in a supreme irony, as the infamous Harbin heating has another two weeks to go before it’s switched off, it’s been a like a sauna in our flat there this week, while in Shanghai we still need to wear winter clothes indoors and take them off when we go out!

But the worst part was having to clean the flat. Cleaning rented flats before moving out of them is something I deeply resent, especially when I then have to scrub the new one from top to bottom as I did last week because the previous (western!) inhabitants had left it caked in ingrained grime. In all my years of moving house, I’ve tried in vain to establish whether there is in fact some code of practice which states whether it should be the outgoing or the incoming tenants who do the cleaning. As an outgoer, I’ve always done it under the unspoken but ever-present threat of the Lost Deposit, only to find that the people moving out of my new place had taken this threat a lot less seriously than me – no doubt with good reason, as I’ve never heard of anyone actually losing a deposit due to poor cleaning. Of course we’re not really moving out of Harbin, but a vague threat that the landlady might want to come in some time to have a look at the place was enough for me, so I’ve dusted and hoovered and mopped (well ok, Peter mopped) all week with spectacularly bad grace.

Our Chinese colleagues, and other non-British westerners such as Big Boss (who’s Australian), can’t understand why we don’t get an ayi – a kind of maid-cum-nanny who seems to be de rigueur for all westerners in Shanghai. How do you explain to a foreigner the peculiarly British angst which surrounds the whole question of employing domestic servants, especially ones of a different (whisper it) race? It smacks so strongly of colonialism and the class system that we wring our hands in liberal anguish, convinced that by paying other people to do menial tasks which we’re quite capable of doing ourselves we’re somehow suggesting we’re socially superior to them, despite the fact that this is what goes on in workplaces every day. Couple this late-20th/early 21st century crisis of conscience with the very mid-20th century view, inculcated in us by our mothers and grandmothers, that the worst fate that could ever befall a woman is to be judged by others for having a dirty house, and you see why it becomes impossible to hire a cleaner, who by definition will see us at our worst – unless we clean up before she comes, obviously.

I grew up in the kind of home which got cleaned when – and only when – we had visitors. When we visited others’ houses they had no doubt been cleaned the day before as well. (The trick is not to do it the same morning; that way they won’t smell the polish and so will never guess.) For my mother’s benefit I must point out that this is not meant as a criticism! Quite the opposite, in fact. It was a spectacularly convenient arrangement which allowed everyone to maintain the charade that their house was immaculate at all times while not actually doing much work – though the question of the impromptu guest was always a fraught one, of course. Despite now seeing the inherent ridiculousness of this - and wondering why these people were our friends anyway if these were the criteria on which we judged each other – I have nonetheless embraced the same practices wholeheartedly in my own adult life: something which both amuses and infuriates my husband, whose own family had a much healthier take-us-as-you-find-us approach to the whole business.

So the idea of letting a Chinese woman into my house to poke about in my toilet and behind my fridge, all smiles and Ni hao’s while probably thinking ‘God these westerners are filthy heathens’ fills me with horror. Even if what she’s actually thinking is ‘Thank goodness these westerners are such filthy heathens or I wouldn’t have a job’. Or even just ‘Thank goodness I’ve got such a cushy job where all I have to do is clean up after these oddballs’. For the Chinese, you see, it is – oh so ironically – all just a question of market economics. We can pay, they want a job; what’s the problem?

So perhaps I should just count my blessings. Qingming Festival is also about celebrating spring, planting, and new life. I may be 41 in a few hours, but in a few months, by some miracle – having genuinely thought I’d left it too late – I’ll be having a baby. A sweeping change indubitably, but the most amazing one to happen to me yet. And tomorrow, as my birthday treat, we’re going to Japan: first to Tokyo for a few days, and then to Kyoto, which is a place I’ve always wanted to visit. Japan may be as near to here as going to France is from the UK, but it’s still fantastic.

Changes. Like the man says, turn and face the strain. It’s not all bad.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Knowledge, and the lack thereof

“TAXI !!”

How often have you shouted that word, or even silently raised your arm on a busy street, secure in the belief that once ensconced in that vehicle you need have no further worries and will be able to switch off for a short while, as you are conveyed efficiently to your destination? You won’t get lost. You won’t be asked any difficult questions regarding the location of or route to wherever you’re going. After all, taxi drivers know everything, right?

Edinburgh taxi drivers do. In fifteen years there I was only ever taken to the wrong place once, and that was forgivable as a lot of the streets do have very similar names. Minicab drivers in York and Southampton seem to have a pretty good grasp of things too, despite having those cities’ tortuous one-way systems to contend with. And in London, of course, all cabbies have The Knowledge.

For my non-British readers, this is a test - allegedly requiring years of study - which anyone wishing to become a black-cab driver in London must pass, and which basically involves learning the name and location of every street and landmark in the UK capital. It’s a BIG place, so the taxi drivers rightly pride themselves on this achievement – particularly as I imagine they must have to keep their ‘Knowledge’ continually updated to keep pace with changes, which is no mean feat these days.

If you’ll permit me an indulgent aside for a moment, anyone who doubts that such an encyclopedic knowledge of a giant mega-city is possible should have met my late father. He wasn’t a cab driver, but I’m sure The Knowledge would have been a breeze for him. He was born and raised in south-east London, and later worked for one of the major publishing houses as their Central London rep for many years between the 1950s and 1970s. He was extremely good at it, and as a result was on first name terms with every bookshop owner, manager or chief buyer in London, which was a great many.

A bi-product of this was that he knew the place like the proverbial back of his hand. When my friends and I started going up to London on our own as teenagers, if any of us wanted to find a specific address, no matter what the area, I had only to ask my Dad and after a minute or two’s consideration he would not only able to advise the traveller as to the quickest route by Tube, but would also draw – freehand and without recourse to reference books – a detailed and amazingly accurate pictorial map of the route on foot from station to destination, showing every turning and landmark - sometimes down to the last tree or lamp-post - with estimated distances or walking times between each.

As a result I was able to travel freely alone around London from the age of about 14 with no fear of getting lost. I’d never heard of an A to Z – my Dad’s maps were all I ever needed. I wish I’d kept some of them as they were works of art, of which he was justly proud. On one’s return home he would enquire with just a hint of a smug smile, ‘So did you find it all right?’, to which one was required to respond with glory heaped upon The Map.

The only time they were ever wrong was when some new development had occurred without his knowledge - something which, it has to be said, he always took very badly. He seemed to expect to be kept informed of all changes, however minor, to the London landscape; indeed, it’s quite possible he half expected them to be run past him first. Any alteration to his beloved native city was truly a monstrous carbuncle. During my student years he occasionally came to collect me by car from King’s Cross when I came home for the holidays, and the installation of any new roundabout or one-way system not only confused and perturbed him but also, you could tell, wounded him deeply. If I or my mother had gone to London armed with one of his maps and dared to remark casually on our return, ‘Yes, thanks, I found the place no problem, the map was great, but incidentally did you know that place you said was a bank is actually now a McDonald’s? And where you said there’d be a big tree on the corner it looked as though they’d chopped it down recently,’ all hell would break loose.

First would come a detailed interrogation to make sure that we weren’t mistaken, or making it up just to annoy him, and that we really had followed his instructions to the letter and hadn’t accidentally – or perhaps wilfully – taken a wrong turning. When at length he was satisfied that we were not either lying or congenitally stupid, the grieving process would begin.

‘McDonald’s?!’ he’d cry, in anguish. ‘What is the world coming to? Been there for years, that bank had. McDonald’s? Christ Almighty,’ and so on in this vein for some time. Or, ‘What, that lovely old tree? Gone? I can’t believe it. Lovely, it was, that tree. Chopped it down? Dear oh dear oh dear. Christ Almighty,’ and at this point would become too choked to continue and wouldn’t speak for the rest of the evening. In the end I gave up telling him. It was less painful for everyone that way.

Knowledge, you see. A powerful tool. Unless, that is, you’re a Chinese taxi driver.

Boss was heard to remark the other week that the only qualification for becoming a cab driver in Shanghai seems to be the ability to drive. To be frank, I would question even that one, but one criterion that certainly isn’t deemed necessary is knowing where anything is.

None of the taxi drivers speak English, so if you don’t speak Chinese the only way to get anywhere is to have your destination written down in Chinese characters and show this to the driver on entering the vehicle. The drill is always the same. They take your piece of paper, peer at it, slowly turn it over and read whatever’s on the back (whether this is the same thing, a different address entirely, or simply your shopping list in English), then with some encouragement from you turn it back to the correct side and read it carefully again, generally while shaking their head and muttering. They may turn to you and ask you a question. When you respond with a shrug, or a wave in the general direction in which you need to go, they mutter some more, throw your piece of paper onto the dashboard and set off, still muttering, which is disconcerting when you can recognise the word for ‘where?’ cropping up repeatedly.

One driver this week did the whole pantomime with my little address note and then turned to me and asked in Chinese which I understood perfectly, ‘Where’s that then?’. And this wasn’t some obscure side-street; our new apartment’s address is on one of Shanghai’s major thoroughfares. It’s like a London cabbie asking you where, say, Charing Cross Road is, or an Edinburgh one struggling to find Leith Walk. What did he want me to say – ‘It’s in Shanghai’, perhaps?

Once mobile, they may start off by going in completely the opposite direction, or take a wildly wrong turning anywhere en route, so you need to have your wits about you and be prepared to shout ‘No, no!’ and gesture frantically – assuming, of course, you know where the place is yourself, because if you don’t, you’re frankly buggered. The only recourse in that instance is to phone someone at your destination, explain your plight, hand the phone to the driver and get them to dictate directions in Chinese. Thank goodness for modern technology.

When they eventually get near – or what they think might be near – to where you want to go, they will slow down and proceed in a very irritating stop-start manner for a mile or so while consulting your paper every few yards. They do this even if you know you’re not there yet and keep shouting at them to go on. Just as they approach the correct place, they will put their foot down and you have to scream at them again to stop, which they will then do, even if this means screeching to a halt in the middle of a dual carriageway and doing a U-turn across several lanes of oncoming traffic.

It’s not just in Shanghai that this goes on. In Harbin, our taxi usage is mostly confined to bringing the shopping home from the supermarket, which is less than a mile away. We have our address, in Chinese, in a text message which we show to the drivers. But not one of them knows where the street is, so Peter always has to sit in the passenger seat and point left and right. In Beijing the other week, Peter was on his way to a meeting and had his cabbie actually lean out of the window while driving along and shout across to a fellow taxi driver driving alongside for directions. Ever heard of sat-nav, guys??

Maybe the trouble is that finding out where places are would involve getting a straight answer out of people, something which you’ll have gathered by now is next to impossible here. The lost taxi-driver in Beijing was only part of Peter’s woes in his attempts to get to this meeting. First of all he had tried to get the hotel reception to give him a phone number for a taxi company so that he could call a taxi to get back after the meeting, as it was out of town. The girl he asked looked a bit perplexed and went into the back office to consult with her colleagues. After a while she reappeared.

‘We will call you taxi,’ she said.

Peter explained that yes, that was fine for getting there, but how would he get back? After several repetitions of this cycle, the duty manager got on the case and offered to find a driver and negotiate with him to wait while Peter had his meeting. Clearly the concept of phoning in advance for a taxi was unheard of – indeed, as the taxis have no radios it’s hard to see how this could work. They sent a lad from the hotel into the street to flag down a taxi. Two stopped at once, only avoiding crashing into each other by one of them knocking down a cyclist, who got up and started shouting at the driver and kicking his bumper, thereby allowing the other driver to win Peter’s fare.

It was this man - who apparently resembled a hippopotamus with exceptionally large, hairy, warty ears - who had to ask other drivers for assistance en route, until Peter eventually phoned the person he was going to meet and did the hand-the-phone-to-driver thing – which in view of the warty ears was pretty brave.

On arrival at his destination, Peter disembarked and retrieving (and wiping) his phone, said to his associate, ‘Right, I’m here now. I’m at the main entrance. Where’s your office?’

‘Ah’, says associate. ‘Go out of the main door and we are round the back.’

‘Left or right?’ asks Peter.

‘We are in a building that is not yellow.’

‘Yes but do I go left or right?’

‘It is a low building.’

Giving up, he picked a direction at random, walked for a little while and then phoned again. ‘Ok, I’m standing looking at a big tower thing.’

‘Ah, you have gone too far. Go back.’

He returns to the main entrance. ‘Now I’ve gone back to where I was before.’

‘I did not see you! Look for the building that is not yellow.’

And so, having asked the guy please to come out and find him, he tried again, and on the second attempt discovered that in actual fact when he got to the tower he hadn’t gone far enough.

People say the Chinese will one day rule the world. If knowledge really is power, I don’t think we’ve got too much to worry about. Rule the world? They’d have to find it first.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Pied à terre

Well, here it is. We finally made it into our new pad in Shanghai - as madly Chinese as our 'other' place (since we're keeping both of them on) in Harbin, you'll be pleased to note.

The, ahem, gorgeous bedroom furniture below comes complete with huge, matching, jade green, mirrored wardrobes. NOT our choice - and that bedspread HAD to go.

I must admit there were times (as you'll have gathered from the previous post) when I really did doubt that this would ever happen. But there are advantages to the Chinese aversion to forward planning. You say you want something fixed and they'll fob you off indefinitely, but in the end they say 'Oh, I'll just call my mate and get him to come round and do it NOW'. And he actually does. What are the chances of moving into a new place in the UK on a Saturday and getting an internet connection, a change of locks, satellite TV installed and a broken washing machine fixed (I just knew it would be broken), all by Tuesday afternoon?

As usual, the process of collecting the keys, signing the contract and getting shown where everything was took a cast of thousands. At one point on Saturday there were nine of us -me & Peter, our interpreter, the landlord, the landlord's friend, the landlord's friend's girlfriend, two guys from the agency, and the landlord's friend's mate who'd been called to fix the satellite TV 'now'. Trying to get any questions across, via the interpreter, while everyone is shouting at once and clamouring to anticipate what you might be asking and be the first to answer it, is a bit like attempting to do business with a class of eleven-year-olds. Today three different workmen came round who I think probably were eleven-year-olds, judging by their youthful appearance.

But we got there in the end. We haven't really moved that much of our stuff down from Harbin yet but will do so gradually over the next few weeks. But at least we've got a place to call home in Shangers now, so we can escape the bonkers hotel and hopefully my obstetrician will stop hassling me. And how many homes come with one of THESE (below?). It's a mousemat, by the way.

So, now the next thing - to organise our holiday in Japan - in LESS THAN TWO WEEKS. Last week Peter tried to set up some meetings with Japanese customers while we're over there, and was told this was 'too short notice' for the Japanese! Yet somehow I seem to have convinced myself that finding accommodation in Tokyo and Kyoto at one of their tourist season peaks won't be a problem. Am I turning Chinese here?

Thursday, March 19, 2009


Temperatures in Harbin on Tuesday hit a giddy 9 degrees centigrade. The result of this was that within 24 hours every trace of snow and ice had vanished from the roads and pavements, which were suddenly damp and visible for the first time in months. There was still plenty of snow around, mainly in huge blackened piles where efficient security guards (such as the ones in the building across the street from us - ours aren't quite as on the ball, though they do their best) have repeatedly piled it over the last few months, so that it now stands about four feet high all around the edges of the courtyard. There was also snow on the grassy areas, but the odd tuft of (brownish) green was even beginning to poke through there, along with a few forgotten leeks, of course.

For the whole of the last couple of weeks, with the thermometer see-sawing either side of the zero mark, things have been gradually turning to mush. I stepped on one unavoidable sheet of ice the other day, only to find it was the thin skin on a puddle and I was almost up to my ankles in dirty water. The icy pavements used not to be a hazard to walk on: the surface of the ice being quite dry, there was none of the slipperiness we generally associate with ice. All this has changed though, making walking and driving a bit more of a gingersome exercise, though fortunately there were ice-free patches in between.

But by Tuesday, like I said, suddenly we were - for all practical purposes - ice-free. People were walking about in ordinary jackets rather than huge fur coats, the sun was shining, and there was an audible dripping sound. I remembered that last year, when we were considering moving to Harbin, we used to keep a watch on the BBC Weather site to see the temperature here each week. After three months of minus 20, suddenly one week in March it was minus 10, then zero, then plus 10, in a matter of a couple of weeks. Finally, I thought, that moment has arrived once again. Yippee!

But then yesterday it snowed. And snowed. And snowed and snowed and snowed. For about seven hours. Stephen Fry may tell us that it's a myth that it can be 'too cold to snow', but I think what he probably means (and these guys seem to agree with me) is that it's possible for it to be too dry to snow. This would explain why the majority of the snowfall we've had since arriving in this neo-Siberian outpost has been in November and March - the transitional seasons which tend to be wetter than winter proper. At least that's my theory and I'm sticking to it. Whatever the case, they closed Harbin airport for several hours yesterday. Just as Peter was trying to fly back from Beijing (whither he was whisked once again not four days after returning via there from the UK!). You'd think Harbin, of all places, would have worked out a way of keeping airports open in bad weather by now, but it seems not. So he and Boss were stranded in Beijing for four hours, finally arriving home at 1am. More meltdown.

Which is what my life feels like at the moment. This has been a week of relentless stress regarding our new flat in Shanghai. God I hate China sometimes. You can't get a straight answer out of anybody. Ask them a question and they'll just fob you off or even blatantly lie through their teeth to tell you what you want to hear, hoping you won't pursue the matter. Then if you do, they'll deny all knowledge of the conversation. Anything which avoids them having to actually DO something. This makes me want to SCREAM!!!!!

An example: one of the items on our carefully compiled list of 'must-have' requirements for our new apartment was that we wanted broadband internet. I need to blog!! Oh, and Peter occasionally needs to work from home but that's obviously far less important! So, when I went to look round some apartments the other week, this was more or less the FIRST question I asked in every place I went into. There were 6 in total, and the answers went something like this.

Apt 1: 'No, you will have to instal it yourselves. It's very inconvenient.'
Apts 2 & 3: 'We don't know. We can find out. Don't worry.'
Apts 4 [the one we're ha ha supposedly moving into this weekend] and 5: (Slightly irritatedly) 'We can ask the landlord to instal it if you want it. It won't be a problem. Don't worry.'
Apt 6: 'It's included!' (Yippee - except that the apartment in question had a bathroom the size of a postage stamp, and so was no good).

In other words, the person we gave the list to had made no effort to check in advance whether any of these apartments actually had this 'must-have requirement'. Having decided on a place nonetheless, we then had a friend in Shanghai undertake negotiations for us with the landlord's agent, regarding length of lease and so on. In our email to her we specifically mentioned getting the internet connected as a pre-requisite. She specifically didn't mention anything about it in her reply, so assuming all was well, we went ahead and got the contract signed and paid a deposit plus three months' rent up front, which is what you have to do in the face of constant threats that they'll give the place to someone else if you don't.

So this week, with the contract due to start on Saturday, we send a list to the Shanghai office of minor things we want sorted out and finalised before we move in. One of which was 'get the internet connected please'.

'The agent says you never mentioned the internet', comes back the reply.

WHAT????!!!! I seem to have mentioned NOTHING ELSE. Anyway, we're mentioning it NOW, so please do it. What's the problem? Yet this was on Monday, and as yet we've received no answer as to whether this apartment for which we have paid and which we're committed to moving into will have any form of internet connection. Despite, I repeat, this being a bloody MUST-HAVE requirement.

Oh, and as if that weren't enough, it turns out that the giant great satellite dish attached to the balcony (also one of the big draws of this apartment after 6 months of CCTV9 !) 'doesn't work'. Er, why not? Why's it there then? Should the landlords not ensure that things are working before putting the place up for rent? What else will turn out not to be working when we arrive?

And all they keep saying is 'Don't worry. It will be OK.'

AARRRGGHHHHH !!!!!! I'm in meltdown.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

A moving story

So plans are underway for our impending move to Shanghai. There are various good reasons for this, the main one being that I refuse to give birth in Harbin where hospital provision is somewhat basic and monolingual Chinese, and I won’t be allowed to fly after the end of April-ish, so to attend a hospital in Shanghai I need to be living there. Once the baby’s born in July I will be free to travel, but the baby needs a passport before it’s allowed on a plane, and a visa before it’s officially allowed to live in China – a bit of a joke when you consider it’ll never have been anywhere else – and I’d like it to have had a few vaccinations before I take it on a Chinese flight. So we reckoned about 6 months in Shanghai was the minimum, and might be fun anyway.

We’re quite attached to the hotel which we always stay in when we go there, despite an entertainingly patchy room service which frequently results in breakfast turning up inconveniently late or early and almost always with the wrong cutlery (ever tried eating cornflakes with a knife and fork?). But six months in such a place would not only be horrifically expensive but would drive us (me) insane, not to mention the unfortunate other guests who had to live next door to our screaming newborn (!), so we’ve been forced to find what we have to keep remembering to call an ‘apartment’ to move into.

When I say ‘move’, it’s not so much a move as an ultra-decadent bid to have not one but two homes in China (as well as one in the UK, of course), due to the fact that a) Peter’s job – though do-able from Shanghai – is really based in Harbin and will require him to be here at least two days a week, b) we can’t quite bear to commit ourselves to either leaving our Harbin flat or to leaving Shanghai when the essential period is over, and c) unknown to us, a two-year lease had been signed on the Harbin flat - sorry, apartment. So we did the maths and worked out we could just afford to keep two places going for six months, without having to resort to the elaborate subletting plan proposed by Boss but which, we were told in no uncertain terms by Kevin, our Harbin landlords Would Not Like.

That was the easy bit.

Now, anyone reading this who’s known me for a long time will have an idea of my record on house moves. For the rest of you, you could say it’s, well, What I Do. Some people throw themselves into their careers; some excel at sport; others collect stamps. I move house. I think at the last count it was 22 times, four of which occurred before the age of seven and the remainder after the age of 18. One friend always used to joke that she needed a separate address book just for me. The total could possibly be more, depending on what exactly you classify as a move. For example, if I moved from one part of a student hall of residence to another (about 6 times, I think), does that count? Or if I stayed with parents or friends while in transit from one home to another (at least twice)?

Whatever the case, you’d think by now I’d find the whole thing a breeze. Truthfully, I used to enjoy it. Revel, almost. But as time goes on, to my intense surprise I’m finding the experience increasingly stressful – something which I think has less to do with my age and more to do with the fact that I seem subconsciously to find it necessary to make each move more difficult for myself than the last. I feel as though I’m trapped in a giant computer game called House Move 3 or something, progressing to a higher and higher level each time.

I’ve moved into houses, flats, bungalows, lodgings and hotel rooms. I’ve moved out of basements into third floor flats and vice versa. I’ve squeezed the contents of an entire flat into a room the size of a cupboard. I’ve moved to new towns – and even a new country – with no idea where I was going to live, and I’ve turned up at a new home I’d just bought to find that due to a hugely complicated mix-up, my key wouldn’t work and I had to find a locksmith and persuade him that I did live there, honest.

I’ve transported my belongings by car, van, train, plane, ferry, fleet of taxis and on foot, trundling them to a new place a few streets away in a supermarket trolley. I’ve moved in blistering heat and torrential rain (the latter several times – although snow will, I think, be a first). I’ve scarcely ever called upon the services of removers, relying generally on family, friends, grudging colleagues, a grumpy ‘man with a van’ driver who didn’t stop complaining because I hadn’t managed to drum up any other helpers and it ‘wasn’t part of his job to carry boxes’, and a friend who attempted to drive a van from York to Edinburgh without bothering to look at a map first, and took us via Redcar.

I’ve moved from Devon to Cornwall, Cornwall to Bristol, Bristol to London/Kent, Kent to York, York back to Kent again (and several repeats of this cycle while I was a student), then to France for a year, then back to York, then to the Shetland Islands for a brief spell, then from York to Edinburgh where I managed to stay put for a bit, then to Southampton (via Kent), then lived half in Southampton and half in Edinburgh before moving back to Edinburgh properly, and then finally to China. I must have covered more miles than Marco Polo.

I’ve done moves which involved getting things from four locations into one and vice versa. I hardly possess an item that hasn’t been in storage at some point, either containerised or in an obliging mother or friend’s loft for several years. I’ve carried collections of suitcases totalling considerably more than my own body weight on trains up and down the East Coast main line hundreds of times. I’ve organised a complicated logistical exercise which involved driving my things from Edinburgh to York by van and then transferring them to my mother’s car which took them on to Kent. I’ve travelled by train from north to south and back with plants, a large hi-fi system, and even a cat in a wicker basket.

I’ve moved in with total strangers, made friends, lost friends, gained and lost lovers and made enemies. My flatmates have been male, female, straight, gay, young (the youngest being a baby of 4 months) or not-so-young, rich, poor, tidy, untidy, employed, unemployed, lovely, tolerable, and unbearable. I’ve lived with English, Scots, Irish, Spaniards (lots and lots of Spaniards), Danes, New Zealanders, and even a one-legged Welsh-speaking Glaswegian called Davy Jones (seriously).

I’ve moved into a place where the previous occupant’s toenail clippings were still embedded in my bedroom carpet – and there was no hoover. I've lived with a girl who kept the toilet roll in a locked cupboard, and with a Tory lawyer with whom I bickered from Day One. There have been insomniacs, people who managed to sleep through deafening music at 3am, people on odd diets and followers of curious religions. I’ve argued ferociously over heating, bills, and whose turn it was to buy or clean things, and had a lovely Spanish flatmate who used to sell me a few of her cool customised clothes every time the phone bill came in, and I fell for it every time. I even lived by myself for a few years and loved it.

And in all of this I’ve only managed to lose one box of books, and have acquired various useful items, a couple of best friends, and a wealth of life experience quite possibly unparallelled among those I know, and for which I shall be eternally grateful. And now I’m married and I love that too. Better than anything.

But I truly thought I’d reached the highest level of House Move 3 with our move to China. We had to sort our extensive collection of possessions (and believe me, the whole thing gets SO much more complicated once another person’s things are thrown into the equation, particularly when that person is a worse hoarder than I am!) into what we would take with us, what we would ship out for later, what we’d leave behind for our tenant, what we’d throw out and what we’d put into storage. We had piles for each category around the flat, which wasn’t easy as we were short of space to begin with. Things got transferred from one pile to another and back again. My problems with getting someone to transport them to China I’ve documented previously. So let’s just say that it was extremely stressful, and once we’d found somewhere to live in Harbin and our things had arrived, the one thing I DID NOT want to do was move again until we had to go home.

You’ll have gathered that my pregnancy was, if not exactly unplanned, then certainly unexpected, and so I find myself now with no alternative but to uncover some sort of hidden bonus feature on House Move 3 where you can have two homes in China simultaneously, which sounds good but involves new challenges not previously encountered in the main game. These include:

One - Trying to find a suitable apartment in a city a thousand miles away a month or two before you want to move in, in a country where everything is done at the last minute and any properties you look round are always available NOW and the concept of holding it for you is an alien one.

Two - Compiling a list of our requirements to give to a Chinese speaker in the office (so that she could make a shortlist of apartments for us to see), carefully divided into ‘must-haves’ and ‘nice to haves’, only for her to ignore most of the items on the list and send us to lots of quite unsuitable places which maybe filled one or two of the criteria.

Three - Trying to negotiate a lease of unorthodox length (which has turned out to be 8 months in practice) when the landlords just want to make as much money out of westerners as they possibly can.

Four - Getting people in the office to take some initiative when it comes to paying deposits, signing contracts and so forth, when they’re terrified to do anything without explicit instructions from you in words of one syllable, lest they get it wrong somehow and thus lose face.

Five - Sorting all our stuff AGAIN into what to take and what to leave in Harbin, complicated by the fact that Peter will spend several days a week here, and by the fact that I’ll be forbidden from flying so won’t be able to come back for things myself, so I’ll have to be able to tell him the exact location of anything I want brought down.

AND by the fact that Chinese landlords don’t provide bedding or kitchen equipment in their apartments so that we had to buy everything from scratch when we moved in here, and will now have to either take half of all this stuff with us, or else buy everything (including kettle, vacuum cleaner, pillows, plates, pans, etc) all over again. Which of course means we’ll have two of everything when we come back. Three, if you count all the stuff back home. I’m trying to learn to breathe deeply and not raise my blood pressure too much!

I’m so looking forward to the release of House Move 4. That’s where you have to do everything I’ve described above - WITH A BABY.