The End of an Unreal Year in Shanghai

Sunny, our ayi, and the girls in a boat on the lake at Century Park.

Sunny, our ayi, and the girls in a boat on the lake at Century Park.

The girls and I are getting ready to fly back to Michigan from Shanghai on Friday, and here is what preparing for that trip will be like:  On Thursday, our ayi Sunny will begin washing and organizing the clothes we need for the trip.  She will then get the girls suitcases from shelves in the garage and take them up to their rooms.  On Friday, Sunny will help the girls pack, getting all their stuff together and putting their suitcases downstairs by the front door.  At departure time, Steven, our driver, will organize and load the nine suitcases we are taking (all half empty so we can bring back needed supplies to Shanghai) in the back of our Ford S-Max.  We will pile in and Steven will drive us to the airport and unload us and our luggage at the terminal door, so we only have a short walk to our check-in gate.  It is completely, utterly unreal.

We are not the kind of people who have “help.”  As Americans, we have self-sufficiency and “do it yourself” drilled into us from an early age by our peers, parents, and advertisers.  When we are at home in Grosse Pointe, I do all the cooking and shopping, oversee cleaning and lawn responsibilities, and do all the bills.  Karen does all the laundry, because she knows I hate it.  And of course we both have cars at home and do all our own driving.

This makes what we experience here in China all the more conflicting.  We’ve given over 90% of our daily responsibilities to our ayi and driver (I still cook occasionally and shop).  As I prepare to leave Shanghai for two months, I have handed over a responsibility to Sunny that I never thought I’d give up:  Paying our bills!  Yep, she’s in charge of that now because Karen will be busy at work and I will be gone.  And I’m pretty sure that’s another job I’m never getting back… sigh.

When we first arrived in Shanghai I held tightly to as much of the daily responsibilities of our lives as possible, warding off Sunny like she was a Chinese demon.  Over time, I have come to understand what a gift it is to accept help.

I guess it's time for a new deck table.

I guess it’s time for a new deck table.

A few nights ago, we had a monsoon-like storm blow through Shanghai with lots of wind and rain.  At some point in the night, the umbrella covering our outdoor deck table blew up and out of its stand and smashed back down on the glass top, shattering it to pieces.  In Grosse Pointe, I would have seen the mess the next day, been annoyed, and gone outside to clean it up.  Here, I picked up the phone, called the Green Villas development office, and within a half hour they had sent a “clean up” team to cart off the glass for a very reasonable fee of 50RMB ($8).

If it is raining on a school day, it isn’t me that drives the kids.  It is Steven who shows up, unannounced, in our driveway after dropping Karen off at work, just expecting to drive the girls.  When my China Mobile phone runs out of money and goes dark, it is Steven who gets a text and goes to pay the money needed to get me more minutes.  (Of course, I pay him back.)  “I will just do it, sir,”  he has said to me.  “It is easier that way.”  And that is what Steven, Sunny, the Green Villas development office, and many other Chinese folks in our lives do for us:  Make our lives easier.

Steven, our driver, helps Karen and I negotiate, and ultimately purchase, an umbrella for our new deck table.

Steven, our driver, helps Karen and I negotiate for, and ultimately purchase, an umbrella for our new deck table.

In fact, I have let go of so much in these last 10 months that I have had to “backfill” new things into my life to keep me busy and sane.  I have detailed many of those activities in previous posts:  Travel, cultural happenings, writing, scooter exploring, shopping, Guy Tais, socializing, participating in school activities, etc.  Letting go of some of life’s responsibilities also has made it easier for me to make new friends, which is an interesting lesson of its own.  We normally have our heads down, cranking on the day-to-day chores of life, which sometimes inhibits meeting and spending time with new friends.  I have made many “for life” friends here in Shanghai, and much to my happiness, several of them are Chinese.

Our ayi Sunny is one of the lifetime friends we have made.  We have accepted her into our lives (well, maybe she busted in) and she has accepted us into hers.  We had the great honor the other night of being invited to celebrate the one-month birthday of her first grandson.

Sunny's daughter Annie (Chinese name Li Xue Lian), and her new baby John (Chinese name Lu Jian Chen)

Sunny’s daughter Li Xue Lian (English name Annie), and her new baby Lu Jian Chen (English name John).

In China, when a baby is born, it is traditional for the mother to stay in bed with the child for the first month, not cooking, cleaning or doing any other domestic tasks.  Family members assist the mother and her family with those chores.  It is considered critical for the baby’s health and well being that they stay in bed with their mother during the first month.  This traditional Chinese practice of postpartum confinement is called zuo yuezi, or “sitting the month,” and is based on ancient Taoist and Buddhist cultural beliefs.  After one month is up, a party is held by relatives who, along with close friends, celebrate the child’s life.

It was quite a party....

It was quite a party….

We were honored to be invited and to attend.  It was a wonderful affair full of joy and love and we sampled traditional Chinese food and wine.  (The girls drank Sprite and shirked a bit at the traditional Chinese fare.)  As the only Westerners in the room of about 150, it was both an honor and pleasure to truly be part of Sunny’s life for a night.

....with a never-ending line of traditional Chinese dishes coming out from the kitchen.

….with a never-ending line of traditional Chinese dishes coming out from the kitchen.

Zuo yuezi is a good way to describe how I feel about our lives here in China.  Just like the health benefits for the baby of being with its mother, my domestic responsibility lockdown has been good for my mental and emotional health.  Not sure how I’m going to handle things when we get home on Friday and everything domestic is back on me.  But what I’ve learned from this situation is that sometimes you have to let go of certain responsibilities so you can gain the richness of the rest of your life.

FYI SIDE BAR:  We survived our first year in Shanghai, and will be back in the States in just a few days.  Not sure how much blogging I will be doing from there, particularly since our two months home will go like lightning.  We are excited about being home in GP, but also very excited to come back here for our second year.  It will be nice to fly into a Shanghai that we have no fears or trepidations about, now a known entity to us.  Also, we have a huge travel year coming up, including Bali, Australia, New Zealand, Cambodia, and the Philippines, just to name a few.  So I will definitely continue the Lost in Shanghai blog when we return in August.  Thanks to everyone for all the kind notes and feedback — can’t wait to see all our family and friends back in the States, and then get back to our friends here in China.

Cassidy playing with a child at the Huge Grace Orphanage in Shanghai, where she was a volunteer.

Cassidy playing with a child at the Huge Grace Orphanage in Shanghai, where she was a volunteer.

Stephanie, in her year-end Mandarin play, with her longtime friend from Dearborn daycare, Paige.

Stephanie, in her year-end Mandarin play, with her longtime friend from Dearborn daycare, Paige.

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4 thoughts on “The End of an Unreal Year in Shanghai

  1. Great blog. Congrats on your first amazing year in Shanghai. The wife and I are looking to move there towards the end of this year for a new job opportunity. Would love to touch base with you when you get a chance.

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