Tuesday Jul 01, 2008

Three Things Your Nanny Wishes You Knew

I went to France in May of 1990 with nothing more than a backpack, $200 in cash and a dream of becoming an au pair and improving my French. I didn't know a soul in Paris but it was Spring and I was in the City of Light and que sera sera, right?

Melanie in Paris 1990

So I arrived in Paris and after 200 cold calls made from public phones on the Champs-Élysées I found my dream job. I was a nanny for Jean-Guillaume, an adorable 2-year-old in a suburb just outside of Paris. Jean-Guillaume and his family lived in a posh mansion which was built in the 1900s but had been recently restored. It was four stories of marble, polished hardwood, antiques, and the kind of art that you go to museums to see. They had bought the lot next door and installed a swimming pool, which meant you had to walk a few steps to get to the hot tub but on the way you passed exotic flora and fauna, ducks and geese, statues and stones. The dad drove a red Porsche and the mom drove a black convertible Saab, and just when I thought my jaw couldn't drop any further they casually mentioned that they kept the Ferrari and the Lamborghini in a garage across town. That's what you do when you own expensive sports cars - who knew?!

It was my first experience as a domestic servant and looking back, there are a lot of things I wish I had told my employers.

1. Be good to the help.
My family was good to me but they were not good to the maid, Marie France. She lived on their property but they didn't want her kids to play in certain sections of their garden and her kids inevitably wandered into the verboten territories, which always led to arguments and a lot of stress for everyone. Marie France was so angry at the family that she started trying to kill them. No joke. She put shards of broken glass in their food. I don't think she was mad at me because she cooked an early dinner for Jean-Guillaume and me and our food was glass-free but the rest of the family had dinner around 10pm and it was not uncommon for them to chomp down on a shard or two. The first few times she claimed a glass had broken in the kitchen and a piece must have somehow found its way into the food but after five or ten times no one was buying that story anymore. So why didn't the family fire her? I think it's because she was really cheap and they didn't have time or energy to look for a new maid. So instead they chose to chew carefully and hope for the best. Until Marie France stole away in the middle of the night with some of the above-mentioned famous artwork, and then they had no choice but to look for a new maid. And new art.

2. Be clear about what you expect from the help.
When I first started my nanny job Marie France was preparing some kick-butt meals for us - can you imagine getting great French cuisine every day for lunch? Awesome, and it was glass-free since I went out of my way to stay on good terms with her. However as the days went by the meals became less and less fresh. Pretty soon we were eating noodles with canned tuna on them.

When I finally asked about the diminishing quality of our lunches Marie-France said, "Didn't they tell you you're supposed to go to the market every day? You're supposed to be buying the fresh vegetables and fruits!" Well duh, that was no problem but I could have died from scurvy while waiting for someone to tell me about this part of my job.

3. Don't take your nanny shopping with you if you're planning to spend big bucks.
I earned the equivalent of $175/month plus room and board when I was a nanny. I was fine with that because for me it was better than paying $500/month in tuition for French classes and if the wages weren't acceptable to me I wouldn't have been there, right? But once Jean-Guillaume's mom took us shopping and I watched her spend my monthly salary on salt and pepper shakers. That just hurt. A month of me was worth less than condiment dispensers. If you're going to make big purchases just leave the nanny at home.

Epilogue (is it okay for a blog to have those?)
I know that in many parts of the world people don't have "help" but it's very common here in China and I am so grateful to have the help of our "ayi" Xiao Zou, who cooks, cleans and does the laundry for me so that when I come home in the evening I can focus on my kids and my husband and nothing else. It's bliss.

Friday Jun 27, 2008

Peking Duck Pedigree

Last week I went to lunch with UFIDA, a vendor who supplies us with some great Korean-speaking contractors. We went to Quanjude, which is a famous Peking Duck Restaurant in Beijing. I don't eat meat, including duck, however the waitress gave me our duck's personal certificate of authenticity.

duck certificate

It says, "Quanjude was established in 1864 (third year of Tongzhi, Qing Dynasty), enjoying a history of over 140 years. The above number is the roast duck we have served from 1864 on." My duck's number, 75020, is just for this one branch of Quanjude that opened about two years ago. That's a lot of ducks.

BTW when I did eat meat I thought Quanjude's was the best Peking Duck in Beijing. If you ever come here you should try it out, and make sure your duck comes with papers.

Monday Jun 23, 2008


Grant wrote the following letter to the Chinese army encouraging them to do their best in rescuing the earthquake victims in Sichuan. Technically he didn't write it, he dictated it to his sister. He is a master delegator, this one.


Even though the quake was over a month ago it's still very much in the forefront of the news and in people's minds. Including kids.

Sunday Jun 22, 2008

I'll take "Medical Terms in Chinese" for $1,000

The other day my kids came running up to me, breathless and looking very concerned. "Do we have fei yan?" they asked. They've been mixing Chinese and English like this more and more lately and my Chinese just isn't keeping pace with theirs.

"I dunno, what does fei yan mean?" I asked.

"Grant's teacher told him that if he jumped around too much after lunch then he could get fei yan," Audrey said. "We just ate and then we accidentally jumped on the bed. So do we have it?"

I had no clue what fei yan was but I assumed it was one of those vague (to me at least) conditions that are often diagnosed in Chinese Medicine. For example if you eat too many salted cashews then you can get shang huo, which literally means your fire is high. So anyway, I told the kids they might have a touch of fei yan but if they rested for a few minutes they'd be fine. At least it would get them to quit jumping on the bed.

That night as we were going to bed my husband asked me, "Did you tell Grant today he had pneumonia?"

"What? Of course not! Why would I do something like that?"

"He said you said he got it from jumping on the bed after lunch."

"Ohhhhh! Is that what fei yan is? Well, in that case then yes, I guess I did tell him that. But in my defense, I said he had a very mild case of it."

"A very mild case. Of pneumonia?" My husband was looking at me like I was crazy. Which I'll admit isn't too far fetched.

I really need to double-up on my Chinese lessons before I diagnose the kids with something terminal next time.

Thursday Jun 19, 2008

Where Fashion Meets Function

Is this a balmy tree-lined avenue? Or are those just lamp posts? Actually it's both, the trees are lamp posts. Fashion meets function, at last.

palm tree street lamps

I took this picture in a suburb of Beijing called Pinggu. And for you Safe Driving Zealots out there, I was a passenger in the car when I snapped this one. (I went through a phase where I used to snap pictures like this, this, and this while I was driving and then posting them on my blog - not from the car - and I had a few concerned readers who left comments. I think I also scared a few of my fellow drivers. I don't do that anymore.)

Wednesday Jun 18, 2008

World's Most Confusing Restroom Signs

The other day I strayed away from The Known and went to a new, hip restaurant in Beijing called Block 8. It's a totally trendy place where young, beautiful people go to see and be seen.

Clearly I have no business at a place like this. For example, the signs for the bathroom left me dumbfounded, especially after a couple of glasses of wine. But seriously, would you have found these confusing too?

men's restroom
women's restroom

I need to go back to T.G.I. Friday's where I belong.

Monday Jun 16, 2008

Time to renew Grant's passport

Such a shame too because he had the cutest baby picture I ever saw.

grant passport

Sunday Jun 08, 2008

Today's the day we have to relax

Apparently extroverted-ness is a dominant gene because I'm the only one in my family who doesn't have it, which was especially obvious yesterday. It was the Dragonboat Festival in China and my husband made plans to meet up with 4 other families at 9am on Saturday morning and drive to Pinggu to race dragon boats. He was giving me the detailed plans Friday night and it included a picnic lunch, picking fruit at different orchards, and of course the dragon boats. To me this was starting to sound like a very charged day so I asked him when we would get home and he said by ten at the latest.

"That's only an hour!" I said.

"No, that's thirteen hours," he replied.

And he doesn't think this is an exhausting agenda at all, he's completely energized by the thought of this day. And our kids are practically wagging their tails at the prospect of all this activity.

I gave in but asked if we could stay home on Sunday and relax, and my extroverts agreed.

Now it's Sunday morning and one of the first things Grant said was, "Today's the day we have to relax, right?"

The day we have to relax. That's one way of looking at it, I guess. I think my extroverted kids and husband need me to keep them balanced and I need them for the same thing. Meanwhile, if there are any introverts out there in blogosphere who can relate please leave me a comment about how you keep your extroverted loved ones from socializing themselves into oblivion.

Thursday May 22, 2008

Three Days of National Mourning

China was in a national state of mourning Monday to Wednesday this week. I've never seen national mourning like this before. I remember in the U.S. after 9/11 we had a moment of silence a week after the tragedy and flags were at half staff. But this mourning in China is more pervasive. All the TV channels broadcast is news from the earthquake zone, or sometimes they play music and run through slide shows of people being pulled out of the rubble, people reuniting with their families, soldiers walking over muddy roads, helicopters dropping supplies onto the ground, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao comforting victims. But I haven't seen any commercials during this 3-day period. The radio stations aren't playing music. Everyone has taken a pause to mourn the loss this incredible loss.

The good news is that Rachel made it back to Beijing last night. She was in Mianyang during the quake. It's so good to have our whole team back together, everyone safe and sound. We are blessed beyond measure.


Monday May 19, 2008

China Cried Out

Today at 2:28pm everyone in China stood in silence for three minutes to remember the people who lost everything in the recent earthquake. Cars had been instructed to honk their horns and alarms were ringing everywhere. I knew it was going to be an emotional moment but I was not ready for the real impact of hearing all those horns and alarms start at exactly the same time - it was like the whole country was crying out together, still trying to grasp the magnitude of the horror that shook the country exactly a week ago. And the whole country was united together in empathy with Beichuan and the surrounding regions. The Chinese prime minister has been traveling through that region recently and he's said several times the way he wants China to react to this crisis: calm, confidant and united. The united part was certainly showing this afternoon. People mobilized quickly and respectfully to show solidarity.

There's a women in my team named Rachel Zhang who was in her hometown of Mianyang when the earthquake hit last week. She was very very close to the epicenter and it's a miracle that she and her family survived with no serious injuries. She wrote here about her experiences this week delivering some supplies to one of the hardest-hit regions (all in Chinese).

Rachel's city has something like 4 million residents. About 8,000 people have already been found dead, 20,000 are believed to be buried in the debris, and 26,000 others were injured in the wake of Monday's quake. It is such a blessing that Rachel and her family are okay, thank God for that.

Monday May 12, 2008

China Earthquake: no major damage in Beijing

Many many thanks to all of you who sent messages asking if we were okay. We didn't feel much of the earthquake in Beijing, just a little bit of vibration. In fact I didn't feel it at all, but maybe that's because my building (Sun's BJS07 building) is new and has an earthquake-proof architecture.

The damage in Western China is obviously more severe. When we went to bed last night the death toll was around 50. When we got up this morning it's already over 9,000 and there are many more people trapped under rubble.

More later. For now I just wanted to say that we're okay in Beijing, and thank you for being concerned for us.

Friday May 09, 2008

One for the Weird Scratches & Cuts Museum

3 stripes, just like Adidas. And he didn't cry when he fell. Or even notice.

adidas kid

Thursday May 08, 2008

Swimming Upstream

Yesterday I saw this little red car driving the wrong direction on a one-way exit ramp. Not only was she going against traffic but she was on the left side of the road, which made an already bad situation even more ridiculous. How in the world did she get herself into this pickle? And what is her plan when she makes it down the exit ramp and finds herself going against traffic on the highway?

wrong direction

Wednesday May 07, 2008

The World's Next Charles Manson?

This artwork is on a bulletin board outside my son's preschool classroom. Their teacher told them to draw a picture of a slide. From a distance, everything looks okay.
tech days

But hold on! Grant pointed out this picture that one of his friends drew. "It's a kid being cooked," he told me.
tech days

Now there's something you don't see every day. :)

Tuesday May 06, 2008

Can you read Chinglish?

See how long it takes you figure this one out. It took me about 30 seconds. But maybe I was tired...

VIP sign

Monday May 05, 2008

"Caution: Drive Safely"

That's what this sign says -


Sunday May 04, 2008

100 days

On April 30 Beijing celebrated the fact that there were 100 days left until the 2008 Olympic Games. To celebrate I took a picture of the Olympic stadium (aka the Bird's Nest) for you on my way home from work.

Bird's Nest

Wednesday Apr 30, 2008

What is "TSOP ANIHC"?

The Chinese letters on this China Post truck are written from right to left, in the traditional Chinese style. This is the first time I've seen anyone do the same for the English letters though.

china post

Monday Apr 28, 2008


Today I was fighting my way through the morning rush hour and I noticed this truck next to me transporting a beautiful tree. Somehow the truck and I managed to stay next to each other for several kilometers. There I was snaking my way through the urban jungle and yet I got to sit in the shade of this gorgeous tree for a few minutes. I snapped a photo of it just before I had to exit the highway.

tree in truck

BTW I know my friend Shubho will leave me a comment saying that I should have been on the subway, putting less stress on the environment, so that poor little tree wouldn't have to work so hard to clean the air back up for me. But Shubho I was driving the car that we won in that contest. What am I supposed to do, let it sit in the parking lot...? :)

Monday Apr 07, 2008

Happy Birthday Grant!

Today is my son's fifth birthday. Like many kids his age he's generally a blur to us - he dashes and crashes around the house, cheating death all day. Every day that goes by without a visit to the ER is a good day for us.

But once in a while I get a glimpse of a thoughtful young man hidden beneath that Tasmanian exterior, like the time I told him a story about my pet rooster Joe. When I was three my dad took Joe out behind the woodshed and "taught him how to fly", and then we ate Joe that night for dinner. (In an ironic twist - which my dad apparently didn't appreciate - Joe was named after my own father Joe Parsons.) Grant didn't react to the story at the time but several days later when I was putting him to bed he asked me seemingly out of the blue, "But did you feel sorry for your chicken?"

I did. I still do. I'm happy that thought would occur to him.

Happy Birthday Grant!

kids playing


The grilled cheese sandwich of blogosphere


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